CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers were a joke two months ago, in danger of becoming the answer to a trivia question as the biggest bust after a Super Bowl season.
The Panthers are surging now, though. They moved into the thick of the playoff race Sunday with a 20-7 victory against the St. Louis Rams.
Carolina (6-7) has won five straight and is tied with the Rams (6-7) for the final NFC wild-card berth, but owns the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage.
“They had us for the buzzards, we were road kill,” linebacker Mark Fields said. “All of sudden, we are coming back. With the character and the leadership of this team, there is no question about it, this team has some resolve.”
Stuck in a six-game losing streak two months ago and the laughingstock of the league with a 1-7 record, the playoffs were unthinkable. Mounting injuries had 14 players out for the season and no help on the way.
Once the Panthers realized that, they began to turn it around and are suddenly playing almost as well as they did during last year’s Super Bowl run.
Feeding off a defense that set a franchise record with six interceptions, the Panthers got touchdowns from Muhsin Muhammad and Nick Goings and two field goals from John Kasay in a rematch of January’s thrilling NFC divisional playoff.
But this one wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Carolina’s 29-23 win in double overtime, mainly because the teams are totally different than they were in January.
For starters, 10 of Carolina’s 22 regulars from that game are either no longer with the Panthers or out with injuries. St. Louis (6-7) was without star running back Marshall Faulk, and started Chris Chandler, 39, at quarterback because Marc Bulger is hurt.
But the stakes were just as high, at least for Carolina.
“It’s a playoff game for us every time we go on the field,” cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. said. “This is it for us. The hole we put ourselves in, the only way out of it is to win every game and keep the season going.”
Manning took the first step, intercepting Chandler on the Rams’ first series to set up Carolina’s first touchdown. It was Manning who set up Carolina’s playoff victory, as well, when he wrestled the ball away from Torry Holt to end the Rams’ drive and give the Panthers possession for their winning drive.
Dan Morgan, back from a three-game absence with a concussion, had two interceptions to join Manning for the team lead. Will Witherspoon and rookie Chris Gamble each added a pick.
Morgan had no idea which of the six interceptions meant the most.
“There were so many, I forgot all of them,” he said.
The Panthers forced seven turnovers. Shaun McDonald muffed a punt that Carolina recovered and the Panthers used constant pressure on Chandler to prevent him from finding a comfort zone.
“I think (Chandler) got rattled early,” St. Louis coach Mike Martz said. “I think any time you throw some picks in the game, as quarterback, it really is unsettling. At that point, he had a hard time recovering.”
Making his first start in more than a year, Chandler wasn’t crisp. But the 17-year veteran still made a handful of athletic plays, including one that was negated for offensive holding but would have ranked among his niftier touchdown passes.
He escaped from the collapsing pocket, eluded several defenders and zipped a pass to Isaac Bruce, who zigzagged into the end zone for what would have been a 52-yard touchdown.
The one that did count was his 75-yard touchdown pass to Holt at the end of the first quarter, when Chandler converted on third-and-9. Chandler finished 16-for-29 for 243 yards, one touchdown, six interceptions and was sacked three times.
“No, nothing this bad,” Chandler responded when asked if he had ever played worse. “I have no answers, and no excuses. It’s just not good.”
Meanwhile, Muhammad, who caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme in the first quarter, scored for a career-best 11th time this season.
And Goings, Carolina’s sixth-string running back before injuries forced him into a starting role, ran for 108 yards and a 1-yard touchdown plunge. He now has run for 100 yards or more in all four of his starts — tying the mark Stephen Davis set last season.