By Sam McPherson
As the Carolina Panthers come to Los Angeles to take on the Rams this Sunday, it’s important to note that the rivalry between these two NFL teams isn’t one of the prominent ones in league lore. Sure, the two franchises once played in the NFC West together from 1995-2001, but since then the Panthers and the Rams have met just five times in the regular season. The sixth contest between the two organizations since division realignment, however, took place in the 2003 playoffs, and it changed the destiny of the Rams franchise immeasurably.
On January 10, 2004, the Panthers beat the Rams, 29-23, in double overtime to close the curtain on The Greatest Show on Turf, as the Rams have never finished above .500 since that season when Carolina rose up in the postseason and did the unthinkable. The Rams qualified for the 2004 postseason with an 8-8 record but haven’t been to the playoffs since that year. Meanwhile, the Panthers went on to win their first NFC Championship Game and advanced to their first Super Bowl, losing to the New England Patriots.
A Game Of Field Goals
Behind two Jeff Wilkins field goals, the Rams took a 6-0 lead as the second quarter unfolded. But then Carolina scored a key touchdown on a fumble recovery to take a 7-6 lead. The Greatest Show on Turf was struggling to get into the end zone, though, and in the early third quarter, Wilkins kicked his fourth FG of the game to put the Rams ahead, 12-10. However, the Panthers had a secret kicking weapon of their own: John Kasay. His third FG with 43 seconds left in the third quarter gave Carolina a 16-12 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
All day, the Rams offense had been slowed down on its home turf, the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Quarterback Marc Bulger threw for 332 yards in this game, but he couldn’t find the end zone. With three interceptions as well, Bulger was struggling to find open looks downfield. Meanwhile, running back Marshall Faulk couldn’t find much room, either. He ran for only 53 yards on 19 carries in this game, and his nine receptions covered only 78 yards. The Greatest Show on Turf was suffocating, thanks to Panthers Head Coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac.
When Carolina scored a TD to go up 23-12 midway through the fourth quarter, the Rams looked cooked. But Faulk and his friends would not give up easily. The two-time NFL MVP winner was a shadow of his former self in 2003, having missed five games during the regular season, but he scored the Rams’ only TD of the day just before the two-minute warning to close the gap to 23-20 after Bulger managed to convert a two-point conversion pass attempt. The Rams successfully recovered an onside kick, and Wilkins tied the game at the end of regulation with his fifth field goal.
Just like that, it seemed inevitable that the Rams would roll in the overtime session and win the game. Why not? Despite Carolina’s 11-5 record, the Panthers had only outscored their opponents by 21 total points in 2003, and it seemed like a fluke they were even able to give the mighty Rams a fight. Even when Carolina won the overtime coin toss, the Rams felt confident in their momentum and that it would carry them to victory.
The First Overtime
The Panthers took the overtime kickoff and marched 41 yards into Rams territory, only to see Kasay miss a 45-yard FG attempt. The Rams then drove 30 yards back into Carolina territory themselves to give Wilkins a chance to win the game. Despite hitting from 51 yards in the third quarter, Wilkins missed the potential game winner from 53 yards to give the Panthers a second chance. But Carolina couldn’t get across midfield before being forced to punt, and with 4:29 left in the overtime session, the Rams took over on their own 13-yard line.
They marched confidently into Panthers territory thanks to two runs and two completed passes. With a first down on the Carolina 38-yard line and just 1:12 left on the clock, it seemed like Bulger and Faulk were going to lead the Rams to a huge playoff win. But Bulger tossed his third INT of the day while trying to hit Torry Holt, and just like that, the home crowd deflated as the Panthers took over. Even though, however, the Rams defense stepped up, forcing the Carolina offense into a 3rd-and-14 situation as the first 15 minutes of overtime came to an end.
The Second Overtime: Boom!
The 2003 Rams defense was a solid unit, not quite the defensive giants the 1999 team played like and not quite the Swiss cheese group of 2000. These Rams finished in the middle of the league in both points and yards allowed, but with the offense so strong, the defense didn’t need to be that stellar. Again, the Rams defense was sound enough, finishing No. 1 in the league in turnovers forced as well. However, on this day, lightning struck: Panthers QB Jake Delhomme hit wide receiver Steve Smith on a crossing pattern for the first down, but the Rams defense missed the initial tackle. Smith was off to the races, and no one could catch him.
Just like that, the game was over, and The Greatest Show on Turf would never be the same, and the Rams organization would never be the same. Remember this as Carolina comes to town on Sunday.