What is the greatest game the Carolina Panthers have ever played?
Ask that question of anyone who has been around all 20 seasons the franchise has been in existence, and the answer usually is the same - the double-overtime NFC Divisional Playoff victory over the St. Louis Rams on Jan. 10, 2004.
Shaking his head after it was finally over, an exhausted head coach John Fox said, "I've never seen a game quite like that, let alone be involved in one."
That's because in the entire history of the NFL, there haven't been many like it. And although those 2003 Panthers also defeated the Dallas Cowboys in an NFC Wild Card and won the NFC Championship over the Philadelphia Eagles to advance to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where they would play another thrilling game, nothing tops the St. Louis game in that season or any other.
Carolina won the NFC South in 2003 with an 11-5 record and defeated wild-card playoff entry Dallas at Ericsson Stadium to set up the showdown at St. Louis, where the Rams had gone 8-0 during the regular season en route to a 12-4 record and the NFC West title.
St. Louis fans were loud and proud. A record sellout crowd of 66,165 showed up at the Edward Jones Dome, where the noise was deafening from the opening kickoff.
Nevertheless, the Panthers fought through the flood of noise to build a 23-12 lead after a 7-yard touchdown run by fullback Brad Hoover in the fourth quarter. With only 8:50 left in regulation, Carolina seemed to be in good shape.
But the Panthers weren't. So much happened in the last 8:50 of the fourth quarter and the two overtime periods that it is difficult to recall it all. The Rams' comeback to force overtime began when kicker John Kasay's 53-yard field-goal attempt hit the left upright and failed to go through with 6:29 remaining.
Had Kasay made the field goal, the Panthers would have been ahead by two touchdowns and the crowd possibly silenced. Instead, the stadium erupted - and it seemed to give the Rams new life.
Given favorable field position and with the crowd seemingly growing louder with every snap, the Rams embarked on a scoring drive. Running back Marshall Faulk capped the 15-play, 57-yard march with a 1-yard touchdown run, and then quarterback Marc Bulger hit wide receiver Dane Looker for the two-point conversion to pull the Rams to within 23-20 with 2:39 left.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
St. Louis kicker Jeff Wilkins not only attempted but also recovered his own on-side kick, setting up his game-tying 33-yard field goal as time expired. The Rams could have gone for the win, but St. Louis head coach Mike Martz played it conservatively and went for the tie, figuring there was no way the Rams would lose in overtime with the crowd behind them and momentum also finally on their side.
"I felt like if we could get it into overtime, we would win. I was very sure about that decision and don't regret it," Martz said.
He was wrong.
The Panthers won the coin toss and took the opening drive of overtime to the St. Louis 22-yard line. Unfortunately, Kasay's apparent game-winning 40-yard field goal was nullified by a delay-of-game penalty. After lining up again, Kasay missed wide right from 45 yards away.
And the teams played on.
On the Rams' first possession of overtime, they moved the ball to the Carolina 35-yard line. Then Wilkins, who had already kicked five field goals in the game, tried from 53 yards out. But this time, his attempt fell just inches short.
And the teams played on some more.
Following a Carolina punt, St. Louis drove to the Panthers' 38-yard line on their next possession. Then, with St. Louis needing just a few more yards to be in field goal range, cornerback Ricky Manning, Jr. wrested the ball away from Rams wide receiver Torry Holt for an interception that ended the drive and gave the ball back to the Panthers shortly before the first overtime expired.
Three plays later, the first snap of the second overtime, and facing third-and-14 from the St. Louis 31-yard line, quarterback Jake Delhomme called a slant in the huddle - "X-Clown" as it was referred to in the Panthers' playbook. All Delhomme and wide receiver Steve Smith really wanted was a first down.
As Smith raced across the middle and Delhomme delivered a perfect ball, the seas seemed to part, and suddenly it was a footrace to the end zone. And no one was going to catch the speedy Smith, who motored 69 yards in the blink of an eye to at last secure a 29-23 victory for the Panthers.
"I just beat the safety (Jason Sehorn), and Jake threw one of those pretty balls at the last minute, like he always does," a grinning Smith. "I braced myself for the big hit, but it never came. And once I took off, I knew I was gone."
Delhomme pointed out that it was the fourth time in five tries the Panthers had won in overtime that season and it improved their record to 10-3 in games decided by six points or less.
"We've been in so many close games, we just believe we can get it done in some kind of way," said Delhomme, who completed 16-of-26 passes for 290 yards - six of them to Smith for 163 yards. "I think the biggest thing is that we stayed calm through all that happened. And we believed in each other that we would get it done. Our guys don't just take a deep breath and hope."
With that, the greatest game the Carolina Panthers ever played was a wrap.
View photos from Carolina's memorable 2003 season as the Panthers won the NFC Championship and advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII.