By Jim Thomas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. This wasn't just a loss, it was a train wreck. And it wasn't just the outcome that was so disturbing for the Rams, but the way it happened.

The Carolina Panthers entered the game a pedestrian 17th in the NFL in total defense. But they looked like the Steel Curtain, the Monsters of the Midway and the Doomsday Defense rolled into one Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The Panthers threw a 15-0 shutout at the Rams on a day when the St. Louis offense played so poorly, it looked paralyzed.

"It's not only the zero but the total yardage, period," running back Steven Jackson said. "Coming into this game, everyone was running on all cylinders. For us to come in and put on a dismal performance like that, it's very humbling."

The shutout was only the third for the Rams since the move to St. Louis in 1995, and the first since a 14-0 whitewash in Miami in 1998. But those were the Rams of Tony Banks at quarterback, June Henley at running back and J.T. Thomas at wide receiver. You know, the Same Old Sorry (Bleep) Rams.

These are the Rams of Jackson at running back and Pro Bowlers at quarterback (Marc Bulger) and wide receiver (Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce). So even with seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace out with a triceps injury, the Rams' offensive ineptitude was stunning.

"It was a very poor showing," coach Scott Linehan said. "We can't play like that on offense."

But they did. The Rams finished with a mere 111 yards of offense, the club's second-worst output as a St. Louis-based franchise. (The '96 Rams gained only 105 yards in a 34-0 loss to San Francisco.)

On Sunday, only six Rams plays gained more than 10 yards. They ran only two plays in Carolina territory all day and both were disasters:

Early in the second quarter, on a first-and-10 from the Carolina 47, Bulger was sacked for a 10-yard loss.

With 5 minutes to play in the fourth quarter, on another first-and-10 from the Carolina 47, Holt lost a fumble after a 7-yard catch.

End "highlight" reel.

"They definitely had a bead on us defensively," Jackson said. "It seemed like whenever we were going to do something, they were on top of it. So hats off to their defensive coordinator."

Then again, it wasn't hard to get a bead on the Rams because they were so one-dimensional on offense. They ran the ball only eight times with seven carries by Jackson and one by Stephen Davis. This wasn't a case, either, where the Rams had to junk the run because they fell behind big. The Panthers led only 3-0 until late in the first half and 10-0 until late in the third quarter.

"I was just really surprised they didn't run the ball more," Carolina defensive end Michael Rucker said. "I was really thinking that the way Steven runs, I thought they would try to run the ball more. ... Once we saw that they were throwing the ball a lot, we switched gears and really got into the pass rush mode."

That's for sure. Bulger was sacked a season-high seven times, which matched the most times he has been dropped in his NFL career. Strangely, Carolina's all-world defensive end Julius Peppers didn't have a sack. But just about everyone else on the Panthers' defense did. Or so it seemed.

The last of the seven produced a safety and two points for Carolina when Rucker tackled Bulger in the end zone with 2 minutes 24 seconds left in the game. Rucker beat Pace's replacement, Adam Goldberg, on the play.

"That was not the way you want to end up," Goldberg said. "I'm not proud of that last play."

That proved to be the Rams' final offensive play, as Carolina ran out the clock.

Carolina's offense moved the ball for 411 yards but, other than that safety, had only two field goals and a 69-yard touchdown reception by Steve Smith to show for it. Even though starting running back DeShaun Foster left with an elbow injury late in the second quarter, the Panthers still rushed for a franchise-record 242 yards. The Panthers controlled the ball for 38:43 to the Rams' 21:17.

When asked what can be taken out of Sunday's game, defensive end Leonard Little said: "Nothing. Nothing at all. I'd rather forget about it and try to move on, try to win some games. We're a better team than this. It hurts so much just to see our team play this way."

So what's missing?

"I don't know," Little said. "I can't put a finger on it. If I could, then I would say something to everybody."

Linehan said the team didn't look ready to play.

"There was really no spark," he said. "There wasn't enough energy out there as a team."

Not every Rams player was buying that theory.

"Yeah, we were all flat," Holt said sarcastically. "Coach said we were flat; we were flat."

If not flat, then flattened. Losers of five in a row, now 4-6, and searching for answers in a season that is disintegrating into a free-fall.