Panthers 29 Rams 23
LAST SEASON, when he was still an obscure backup quarterback for
the New Orleans Saints, Jake Delhomme saw something special in
the Carolina Panthers. He noticed that they never stopped
fighting, even while in the throes of an eight-game losing
streak, and he decided that if he ever had a chance to play for a
team like that, he'd jump at it. The opportunity came last March
when Delhomme, an unrestricted free agent, signed a two-year, $4
million contract with Carolina--and there couldn't have been a
better fit. Given the chance to play, Delhomme has shown that he
never stops fighting, either.
Last Saturday, Delhomme led the Panthers to a 29-23
double-overtime divisional playoff victory over the St. Louis
Rams, hooking up with speedy wideout Steve Smith on a 69-yard
touchdown pass to win the game. Facing third-and-14, Carolina had
called X-Clown, a play added to the game plan last week after
coaches viewed film of the Rams' base cover-two defense, which
allowed Smith to get off the line without being bumped and into
the secondary quickly. Delhomme hit Smith in stride on a seam
route, and Smith raced past safety Jason Sehorn.
A former Louisiana-Lafayette standout who had thrown only 86
passes with New Orleans, Delhomme has quickly developed a
reputation for producing late-game heroics. He engineered seven
game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or in overtime, tops
among NFL quarterbacks. Small wonder that the Panthers tied
league records for most wins by three points or less (seven) and
most overtime victories (three). "We've been in so many close
games that we just believe we're going to win," says Delhomme,
whose next test comes in Philadelphia on Sunday against the
Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. "If we're in the same type
of ball game next week, we truly believe that, some kind of way,
we're going to get it done."
It's difficult to describe the magic of Delhomme, a lanky 6'2"
Cajun from Breaux Bridge, La. He began the season as the backup
to Rodney Peete and took over at halftime of the opener, but he
didn't put up eye-popping overall numbers for the season--a 59.2
completion percentage, 3,219 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and 16
interceptions. Still, he helped Carolina, 1-15 two years ago and
then 7-9 in coach John Fox's first season, finish 11-5 and win
the NFC South.
"People criticize Jake because he's not throwing for 300 yards or
four touchdowns every game, but that's not his job," says
Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "His role is to move
our offense efficiently and give us a chance to win. That's what
he's done. I've always said that as long as there's time on the
clock and he has that light in his eyes, he's going to come
through for us."
St. Louis apparently doesn't have the same confidence in its
quarterback, Marc Bulger, who was intercepted three times on
Saturday. Down three points with one timeout and 37 seconds left
in regulation, the Rams had first-and-10 at the Carolina 15.
Instead of taking a couple of shots at a touchdown, normally
aggressive St. Louis coach Mike Martz let the clock run down to
three seconds and settled for a game-tying 33-yard field goal by
Jeff Wilkins. "I felt that we would win the game if we got into
overtime," Martz explained later.
Instead he left the door open for Delhomme, who has come quite a
distance since going undrafted in 1997. The Saints signed him
that June, waived him two months later and re-signed him to the
practice squad in November. He even rode the bench, behind Kurt
Warner, during the first of his two stints in NFL Europe, with
the Amsterdam Admirals in '98. He spent the next five seasons in
New Orleans, mostly as the inactive third quarterback on game
Delhomme had started two games in the NFL when the Panthers
showed interest in him. "When I first met Coach Fox," says
Delhomme, "he told me he was only looking for somebody to manage
the game. He said we weren't going to put up all these numbers,
but if his quarterback played smart and did the right things,
that would be good enough. That fit into my sense of what I do
well. I can manage the game, and when it's my turn to make a play
in the passing game, I can do that too."
The Panthers were trailing the Jacksonville Jaguars 17-0 when
Delhomme replaced Peete on Sept. 7. After entering the huddle and
telling his teammates to get their "f------ heads up," he led them
to a 24-23 upset that was capped by a fourth-down, 12-yard
touchdown pass to wideout Ricky Proehl. Delhomme was equally
impressive in Carolina's 27-24 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
on Nov. 9, when Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis was sidelined
with a sore ankle and the Panthers blew a 20-7 fourth-quarter
lead. Delhomme threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns, including
a game-winning, five-yard pass to Smith with 1:06 to go.
Fox says that performance demonstrated to Delhomme "that we don't
have to be good for four quarters--we just have to be good enough
to win." That essentially describes Carolina's play in last
Saturday's game, the fifth-longest playoff game in NFL history.
The Panthers not only squandered an 11-point lead in the fourth
quarter but also had a 40-yard field goal by John Kasay in the
first overtime nullified by a delay-of-game penalty.
However, Delhomme, who turned 29 on Saturday, got stronger as the
game progressed, throwing for only 154 yards in regulation but
finishing with 290. "I don't know what Jake went through in his
life, but it definitely has prepared him for big games," says
Panthers strong safety Mike Minter. "Whenever we've needed him to
do something huge, he's delivered. In my mind he has been the
biggest steal in the league."
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER SAY GOODBYE Smith dodged the diving Sehorn and sped off for thewinning touchdown.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES CROWD CONTROL Todd Steussie (75) and his linemates gave Delhommetime to complete 16 of 26 passes for 290 yards.