Rams hope bad dream will begin to fade away
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Jake Delhomme over the middle to Steve Smith for 69 yards. Touchdown. Panthers win in double overtime. See you next season, Rams.

"I don't think there's any doubt it's a play that will stand out in my mind for many years to come," Delhomme said. "It was a great play. It was a great game. It was just too bad someone had to lose that game."

Too bad for the Rams, that is.

Carolina used that 29-23 playoff victory as a springboard to the NFC championship. St. Louis, despite a 12-4 regular season, was stymied in its bid to reach the Super Bowl for the third time in five years.

Rams defensive tackle Ryan Pickett still dreams about the way that game - and that season - ended. Unfortunately, safety Jason Sehorn never catches Smith in any of those dreams.

"Every night, (Smith) seems to score some kind of way," Pickett said, shaking his head.

To Rams fans, the mere mention of last season's Carolina game conjures up images of Sehorn lunging for Smith.

It was a tough way to lose a game, and no one realizes this more than Rams coach Mike Martz. Season-ending losses, whenever they come, are tough for him to take. He's a sore loser. And once his team is finished, he can't bear to watch any more of the playoffs.

"It angers me," he said. "I've got to go do something else and get away from it. It's just too hard for me to deal with. It's just too much of a disappointment. It takes me a long, long, long time to get through that, and get over it."

Never was this more so than in the aftermath of the Carolina loss 11 months ago.

"I'm still not over that one," Martz said. "It still hangs in my craw."

Suffice it to say, the passage of time has not heightened Martz's appreciation for the classic nature of that Rams-Carolina contest.

"No," Martz said, bluntly. "We played so well at times. Got in the red zone. You get touchdowns instead of field goals, and you've got control of your own destiny, and who knows what happens after that."

On the Rams' first three possessions against Carolina that day, they reached the Panthers' 2-, 6- and 8-yard lines. They settled for a field goal each time.

"That's hard for me," Martz said. "It was really hard for me to look at that tape."

Then, in a surprising revelation, Martz added, "It was really even more hard than the Super Bowl. We played so well and moved the ball, and got into scoring position, and we didn't get the ball in the end zone."

Obviously, the Super Bowl reference was to the Rams' 20-17 loss to New England in three years ago.

Of course, to some Rams fans, the hardest thing to take about the Carolina game was Martz's decision to play for the tie in regulation rather than going for the victory.

Trailing 23-12 late in the fourth quarter, the Rams closed to 23-20 with 2 minutes 39 seconds to play on a Marshall Faulk TD run and a 2-point conversion pass from Marc Bulger to Dane Looker.

On the next play, Jeff Wilkins recovered his own onside kick, giving St. Louis possession on its 42 with 2:38 left to play. Despite having the 2-minute warning and one timeout remaining, the Rams ran only four plays before Wilkins' 33-yard field goal sent the game into overtime as time expired.

Martz said it at the time, and still insists, he would do nothing different at the end of regulation.

"It was the right thing to do in my mind," Martz said. "Just absolutely it was. When you come back from that far behind, and your team has made that great of an effort, you owe them the opportunity to continue to play.

"It reflects back to that situation in Washington more than anything else."

In 2002, the Rams trailed Washington 20-17 late in the fourth quarter at FedEx Field. A last-minute Rams drive reached the Redskins' 6-yard line. But on first and goal, Washington linebacker LaVar Arrington knocked the ball loose from quarterback Kurt Warner. The Redskins recovered with 11 seconds to play.

Martz planned to take one shot at the end zone, and if that didn't work, kick a field goal to send the game into overtime tied 20-20. But on this day, the best-laid plans went awry.

"Sack, fumble, we lose," Martz said.

The Rams were 5-5 entering the game, having clawed their way back from an 0-5 start that season. Had they won, they might have made a run at the playoffs.

"No question," Martz said. "That (loss) devastated this football team. And I've never forgotten that."

And despite Martz's late-game conservatism against Carolina, the Rams definitely had their chances to win in overtime.

St. Louis reached the Carolina 35 on its first possession of OT. But Wilkins' 53-yard field goal was short. On their second possession, the Rams had a first and 10 on the Carolina 38, when Ricky Manning Jr. intercepted a Bulger pass intended for Torry Holt. Bulger was a little late with the throw, and Manning practically took the ball right out of Holt's hands.

Smith scored three plays later.

"That thing was won and lost about three or four times for both teams," Carolina coach John Fox said. "It was probably as grueling and agonizing of a game as I've ever been involved with, just with the excitement of it and the length of it."

On Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, the Rams have a chance to avenge that stinging defeat. A victory won't erase what happened last Jan. 10 at the Edward Jones Dome. But it would all but eliminate the Panthers from playoff contention this season.

"It's hard to forget losing a game like that," Pickett said. "It was the same way when we lost the Super Bowl in 2001. It sticks in your mind. So you just try to feed off of it."

Feed off it, and make sure the same thing doesn't happen twice.

"If we win, we can knock them out of the playoffs," Pickett said. "That's how we're looking at it. A little bit of revenge. ... It'll take a lot of the pain away."

A lot, but not all.