The Panthers' 1996 season is often remembered most for the franchise's signature home playoff win over the reigning Super Bowl champion Cowboys. But that was set up by an even more thrilling home win two weeks earlier. That came over the Steelers, the reigning AFC champs.
Carolina had already clinched a playoff berth heading into that regular season finale against Pittsburgh, but the Panthers were going for more: an NFC West division championship and a first-round bye.
Carolina took an 18-14 lead after a field goal to start the fourth quarter. Then Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart tested the Panthers defense time and again.
A seven-play drive to the Panthers' 29-yard line stalled on fourth down. Then a 10-play drive to the Panthers' 6-yard line stalled on fourth down. When the Steelers got the ball one final time, they ran another nine plays to get to the Panthers' 8-yard line with 48 seconds left.
Carolina had to make one more stand.
"They ran the same play the first half," Cota recalled on the latest edition of "Inside Scoop."
"The motion came and I knew they were going to run that same play again. I knew Sam (Mills) was going to have a hard time going with it, so I just completely came out of my responsibilities and just followed Andre Hastings. I knew Kordell was going to throw it to him. We kind of met at the same time on the ball and I just lucked out and happened to be able to rip it away from him."
"You're working so hard all season, all training camp and it all kind of comes down to that final drive for the season," Cota continued. "And to be able to make that play and help your teammates reach that goal, that's what football is all about. That was the biggest high of my career. It was just amazing."
While Cota's play went down as one of the first big game-winning moments in the new Ericsson Stadium, when it happened was also a bonus.
"The wives loved me," Cota said. "It was the holiday season and we got a bunch of days off for Christmas. If we would have lost, we wouldn't have had those days off. So the families were pretty excited for me, too."