By Barry Waller

Gridiron Gateway

The Rams hit the road this week to play the Carolina Panthers, and the situation is much like it was when the Rams traveled to Green Bay in late November. Hopefully, the result will be different. Just as the Packers rose from the dead to real off a month of victories heading into a meeting with the Rams, the Panthers, their coffin ready to be nailed shut, have rebounded with four straight wins after a 1-7 start.

The fact that the Rams have the misfortune to be scheduled against two teams who are on a hot streak, illustrates how in the NFL, it’s not only who one plays, it’s also when. Though the apparent level of play of the Rams opponent at game time is the same however, this game is far different in terms of predicting an outcome.

Like Green Bay, the Panthers have made a 4-0 run by beating some bad teams playing their worst when they played them, but in the case of Carolina, the winning streak is more about “winning ugly” again, like they had in their Cinderella 2003 run. This year, injuries and a very tough early schedule put the Panthers in a seemingly insurmountable hole. Sitting at 1-7, with some of their biggest stars out for the year, offensive keystones such as running backs Steven Davis and DeShaun Foster, and wide receiver Steve Smith, and defensive tackle stud Kris Jenkins on defense.

Those are just the big names the team has lost for the season, in a year that has been very unlucky for the defending NFC Champions. They are still only 2-4 at home, the same as the Rams road record. Fortunately for the Panthers, head coach John Fox did not panic when things were at low ebb, and his team has responded the last month, with young players stepping up to make contributions to what’s been a string of real team victories.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme hasn’t had a great season thus far, throwing 13 interceptions, and 20 touchdown passes, ten to favorite target Muhsin Muhammed, former Rams quarterback Tony Banks’ college roommate at Michigan State. Despite only adequate protection, Delhomme has been able to escape and throw the ball away rather than taking sacks. The Panthers rank 6th best in the NFL in sack percentage as a result, and the Rams must contain Delhomme to win this key game Sunday.

Delhomme spreads the ball around more with Smith out, and the situation has been helped dramatically with the emergence of rookie Keary Colbert. The rookie out of USC, who played in the shadow of Mike Williams in 2003, has caught 38 passes, including four touchdowns, and has averaged 16.4 yards per catch. Muhammed’s average is 15.3, indicating that the Panthers plan is to run the ball effectively, and then take shots deep. IN other words, the same as it has been for a couple years.

The Rams defense must also keep Panthers red hot third string running back Nick Goings from killing them like he and the other the other Carolina backs did in the playoff loss last January. Unlike the Packer game, the Panthers lack the offensive line, receivers, and passer to be a heavy favorite to win. If the Rams defense is truly on the right path, they should be able to shut down an offense that ranks 26th in rushing yards. Goings is also a favorite target for Delhomme as a safety valve, catching 32 passes for 263 yards and a score.

The biggest key to this game will be the turnover battle, as usual in games with closely matching talent. The Rams seldom win those anymore, and with Marc Bulger and Marshall Faulk out, and Steven Jackson a question mark as well, it’s not a good situation for the Rams offense. The worst situation is going to be on the right side of the line, where Blaine Saipaia makes his starting debut against All-Pro Julius Peppers, the best pass rusher in the NFL.

Even without Jenkins alongside him, Peppers leads the team with 10 sacks, and is among the league leaders again. He also has two interceptions, one of which he returned 97 yards for a score, and God knows how many batted passes or forced fumbles. Peppers is quickly becoming the Lawrence Taylor of his generation, something Fox, the former Giants assistant, knows very well. The Rams must plan their entire offense around negating Peppers, or it could mean disaster for backup quarterback Chris Chandler, and Arlen Harris, who has been named the starter at halfback.

Without his two top backs, look for Mike Martz to go to maximum protection all day for Chandler, and try to take advantage of his ability to throw the deep ball. Martz will no doubt throw in any situation Sunday, because he knows both Panthers corners, Rickey Manning Jr., and rookie Chris Gamble, are very vulnerable to double moves. If the Rams can keep Peppers out of the backfield long enough, Chandler could have a big day against a defense ranked 21st in passing yards allowed, and 22nd in average gain per pass.

The Panthers defense is 31st in opponents first down percentage, and that’s not a good thing for a team playing Martz’ offense. They do rank 4th in interceptions though, despite a poor 29th rank in sack %, as Manning, Gamble, and strong safety Mike Minter, go for the ball and try to jump routes in key spots. Minter has had some of his best games against the Rams, and Chandler will need to keep track of him, both in coverage and on blitzes. If the Rams double and triple team Peppers, Fox will without doubt start bringing safeties and linebackers every play, and Minter is a big hitter.

Hopefully, Harris, not known for being a great pass blocker, will be up to that task Sunday, though the Rams may go to three receivers and fullback Joey Goodspeed as the only one in the backfield at some point. Martz will no doubt try to exploit the Panthers nickel and dime cornerbacks with speedster Kevin Curtis, who was quiet last week as the Rams ran the ball much of the time.

The loss of Smith crippled the Panthers return game even more than their offense, as a team that benefited so many times from great field position due to his efforts is now 29th in punt returns and 24th in kickoff returns. That’s better than the Rams though, who hope newcomer Aveion Cason will help get them from the bottom of the rankings in kickoff returns, as he replaces Harris.

This game will probably go down to the wire, and will probably be a physical contest, one that could be affected by weather conditions in eastern North Carolina. Whichever team coughs up the ball in a game that could see some long pass plays on both sides will probably win it. I can predict that it will probably be an entertaining game, but making a prediction on this one is just too tough, which is why this game might define this 2004 Rams team as it tries to earn a postseason spot in the weakest division in sports.