PANTHERS 29, RAMS 23 (2OT): In one of the longest playoff games ever, Carolina survives OT miscues.
ST. LOUIS - Jake Delhomme began the season on the bench but is one victory away from ending it in the Super Bowl.
That improbable journey continued for the Panthers quarterback Saturday in what is likely to be considered among the greatest NFL postseason games ever played.
On a play known as X-Clown, Delhomme hit receiver Steve Smith on a 69-yard touchdown pass to give the Panthers a 29-23 upset victory in double overtime over the Rams, ending the fifth-longest game in playoff history that took more than four hours to play.
"It was one whale of a football game," said Carolina coach John Fox of the fifth double-overtime game ever, one that included 142 plays from scrimmage. "We've had more close games than I'd like to remember, today included. But they believed in each other and never let their sword down."
Carolina plays the winner of today's Packers-Eagles game in the NFC Championship Game on Jan.18, either in Philadelphia or Charlotte.
Delhomme, signed as a free agent from the Saints who started the season as a backup to starter Rodney Peete, passed for 290 yards in his first playoff start.
"When I signed here I looked for an opportunity to play," Delhomme said. "Did I think the day I signed we'd be in the championship game? Probably not. I was looking for an opportunity and kind of taking and running with it."
Panthers placekicker John Kasay, who had kicked four game-winners this season, appeared to have ended the game in overtime when his 40-yard field goal split the uprights with 10:57 remaining in the first overtime. But with half of the Panthers nearly at midfield to celebrate, the kick was erased by a delay of game penalty.
"Really, to be honest, that's something I'm going to have to look at closer," Fox said. "They were fooling around with the ball as far as the spot, getting the K ball back in. I was shocked when I looked up there, and they had called delay of game.
"Of all the penalties I expected, that was not it. I thought it was on them for 12 men because there was no movement. I was surprised."
Also making his first playoff start, Rams quarterback Marc Bulger struggled to get his team in the end zone. Although he passed for 332 yards, he was intercepted three times and finished with a 53.9 efficiency rating.
With the crowd chanting for two-time MVP Kurt Warner, Bulger rallied the Rams from a 23-12 deficit in the final 2:39. St. Louis tied the game on Marshall Faulk's 1-yard run, a conversion pass to tight end Dane Looker, and an onside kick recovery and 33-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins as time expired.
The Rams wasted a good opportunity to win the game in regulation. Running back Marshall Faulk rushed 4-yards for a first down to the Carolina 15. The Rams had one timeout and about 29 seconds remaining, plenty of time for Bulger to spike the ball and set up a potential winning pass in the end zone.
But Rams coach Mike Martz did something completely out of character: He played it safe and let the clock run down to set up the field goal to force overtime.
"Here's what was going through my mind," Martz said. "We had just overcome a pretty substantial deficit. I was concerned. We had had protection problems the last two times we had been down there. I didn't want Marc bumped or the ball tipped and intercepted. I wanted our guys to continue to play, so that's what we did."
The Rams had two more chances to end it. But Wilkins, who had kicked a team-playoff-record five field goals, missed from 53 yards with 6:52 remaining in the first overtime.
On the Rams next possession Bulger completed three passes to move his team from its 13-yard line to the Panthers 38. But on first down Bulger was flushed from the pocket and rookie cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. stepped in front of a pass intended for Holt and wrestled the ball away for an interception.
"That was a huge play, right in front of our bench," Fox said. "We had pretty good pressure, the quarterback scrambled back outside and the receiver adjusted his route. Ricky made a good play on the ball and it was a good fight to get the ball."
For a while Wilkins was the greatest toe on turf. The Rams had the ball at or inside the Panthers 15 four times and came away with four field goals.
"We have a formula, it's a mindset," Fox said. "When you have a wide-open offense like St. Louis has, it gets tougher in the red (zone) area to execute those things. The advantage is with the defense."