ST. LOUIS – After all he did, it was only fitting that Jeff Wilkins got the chance to tie, and win, the game. After all his successes it seemed inevitable Wilkins would get the job done.
He came up a couple of feet short.
Wilkins, the St. Louis Rams’ kicker, had done more than anyone could have expected to help the Rams clawed back into their NFC divisional playoff game against Carolina on Saturday at Edward Jones Dome, but he didn’t have quite enough to finish the job.
Wilkins and the Rams battled back, but fell short in a 29-23 double-overtime loss that ended their season. Wilkins made five field goals, a Rams playoff record, including a 33-yarder that tied it at 23 as regulation ended.
He recovered his onside kick, but the 53-yard attempt he missed in overtime will haunt Wilkins during the offseason.
“It was playing out to be a great day,” Wilkins said. “It’s one of those things where even if I went 10-for-11, I’d still be upset about that one. That’s the way this one’s going to be. It’s going to eat at me for a while.”
In overtime, both offenses traded punches, but the kickers couldn’t deliver the final blow.
After Carolina kicker John Kasay missed a 45-yard field goal wide right on the opening drive of overtime, the Rams had new life again. Their drive bogged down at the Carolina 35, though, and Wilkins didn’t have enough to win it from 53 yards out.
“We had two teams out there fighting for their lives,” Rams safety Adam Archuleta said. “It was going back and forth just like a heavyweight title fight, but in the end they hit us with the knockout punch.”
The Rams defense stopped Carolina, though, giving the offense another shot, but with St. Louis driving, cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. made a great play to step in front of Rams receiver Torry Holt and intercept Marc Bulger at the Panthers 35.
Manning, a rookie, downplayed the magnitude of the play he made against Holt, the league’s leading receiver in catches and yards.
“I just made a good read and a good play on the ball,” Manning said. “I wanted it more than him, and I just got it.”
Three plays later on third-and-14, Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme hit receiver Steve Smith on a short pass and Smith did the rest. Smith, who had six catches for 163 yards, got past cornerback Travis Fisher and made safety Jason Sehorn miss on his way to a 69-yard winning score.
“It was a great throw, a great catch and a great way to go after the catch,” Panthers coach John Fox said.
The Rams, usually unbeatable at home, struggled for most of regulation, failing to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns and allowing Carolina running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster to run rampant through the secondary.
Davis, who left early in the second quarter with a left quadriceps injury, rushed six times for 86 yards, and Foster filled in with 95 yards on 21 carries.
A chorus of boos clamored from the crowd of 66,165 on several occasions, and the boos were especially loud after Bulger threw two of his three interceptions in the fourth quarter.
The jeers turned to cheers when the Rams scored 11 points in 2:39 to send the game to overtime, temporarily erasing St. Louis’ disappointing performance at home. The Rams had won 14 straight at home since Sept. 29, 2002, when Dallas beat the Rams 13-10.
Despite their inability to score touchdowns on three red-zone trips in the first half, the Rams took a 12-10 lead on the first series of the second half.
Carolina added two field goals for a 16-12 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, though, and Bulger’s first interception led to a Carolina touchdown that seemingly put it out of reach.
On a second-and-19, Bulger threw deep down the right sideline, but Carolina safety Mike Minter was the only player in the area, and he made an easy interception. The Panthers quickly drove to the 7, where fullback Brad Hoover ran up the middle for a score and a 23-12 lead.
Any hope the Rams had left seemingly went by the wayside when Bulger threw a second interception, this time to Deon Grant, who returned it 16 yards to the Rams 28. Kasay missed a 53-yard field goal after the drive bogged down, though, and St. Louis had its chance to come back.
When the red zone finally turned into gold for the Rams, it was nearly too late. Marshall Faulk’s 1-yard touchdown run with 2:39 left and a two-point conversion pass from Bulger to Dane Looker got St. Louis back within 23-20.
St. Louis looked to be running out of luck, but Bulger found Faulk for 22 yards on fourth-and-2 from the Carolina 38. Bulger hit Faulk again to convert a third-and-10 from the 16, but after runs by Faulk and Bulger, the Rams had third-and-goal from the 3.
A pass interference call against Terry Cousin gave the Rams a first-and-goal at the 1, and after a Faulk run and an incomplete pass, Faulk finally got in on third down. Bulger rolled right and found Looker in the end zone for the two-point conversion, and the Rams had a chance.
Then, Wilkins recovered his onside kick after it bounced high in the air off a Carolina player’s leg, and the unlikely was suddenly quite possible. The Rams promptly drove to the Panthers 15, where they had time to take a shot at the end zone, but coach Mike Martz instead opted to take Wilkins’ 33-yard field goal and a shot at overtime.
Martz said he didn’t feel as though the Rams could afford to press their luck after the stunning comeback, so he decided to go with the “sure thing” and kick the field goal.
After St. Louis had taken an early 6-0 lead on Wilkins field goals of 20 and 26 yards, Davis broke free for a 64-yard run off left tackle, until Aeneas Williams finally pushed him out of bounds at the Rams 4. The St. Louis defense stiffened, forcing a third-and-goal from the 5, but Leonard Little’s great defensive play turned into a nightmare for the Rams.
Little broke up an attempted pitch from Delhomme to Foster, but the Rams’ Brian Young couldn’t recover it, and Mushin Muhammed fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown. St. Louis challenged the call, contending Delhomme’s pitch was a forward pass, but the play stood, and Kasay added the extra point for a 7-6 lead.
After the Rams took a 9-7 lead on another Wilkins field goal, the Panthers scored on a 45-yard Kasay field goal to take a 10-9 halftime lead.