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DEFENSE DOES THE REST\ CAROLINA SHUTS DOWN HIGH-OCTANE OFFENSE
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DEFENSE DOES THE REST\ CAROLINA SHUTS DOWN HIGH-OCTANE OFFENSE

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Panthers 16 Rams 3\ Call it a hunch, but George Seifert knew this game would come down to his defense. How else can you explain his last-minute decision to introduce the Carolina Panthers defensive starters before kickoff for the first time in two seasons?

``Do you think maybe I should do that again? Holy mackerel,' Seifert said after his defense stuffed the vaunted St. Louis Rams in a 16-3 Panthers victory Sunday in frigid Ericsson Stadium.``The defense really played about as good a game as you can play against arguably one of the great offenses of all time,' Seifert said. ``So to go in there and hold them to three points and come up with seven turnovers is a heckuva a tribute to the players and coaches.'

On an afternoon in which the wind-chill factor was 13 degrees prior to kickoff, neither team's offense could catch fire. So it was up to the Panthers unheralded defense to make something happen and spark Carolina (6-7) to its first back-to-back victories of the season.

It did in a big way, forcing six of a franchise-record seven turnovers, including an 88-yard interception return in the third quarter by nickel cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock that gave the Panthers a 7-3 lead it didn't relinquish. Imagine the odds that the only touchdown in a Rams-Panthers game would be scored by a reserve cornerback. The Rams were averaging 36 points a game and hadn't been held to fewer than 20 in 28 regular season games.

``You can't ask the defense to play any better,' said Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who had 10 receptions. ``We go into the game thinking we're going to have to score 25 points to win this game. We ask our defense to hold guys underneath the numbers that we set. Today, who knew a defensive touchdown would win the game?'

Perhaps the Rams (8-5) were scared by the weather predictions calling for significant snowfall. The alarmist forecasts and phantom snow forced dozens of flight cancellations at Charlotte-Douglas Airport and limited the crowd to a franchise-worst 46,659.

When the Panthers beat the Rams 27-24 in St. Louis last month, critics focused on the fact that St. Louis played without its biggest stars - Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk. That excuse didn't hold this Sunday.

Warner, the 1999 league MVP, brought his top quarterback rating and 376 yards passing per game into his first start after missing five games with a broken pinkie finger. The Panthers limited him to a season-worst 189 yards and four interceptions.

Faulk, who missed last month's Panthers victory with an injured knee, registered 94 yards rushing and 34 receiving yards.

The Rams also had their full complement of receivers, including Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim. Hakim fumbled twice, including a punt, and Holt fumbled once. Bruce was the intended receiver on Hitchcock's game-altering interception.

``To go out and shut these guys down to three points as powerful as that offense is ... ,' said Panthers quarterback Doug Evans, who had an interception and fumble recovery Sunday. ``They had all their guys - they had Kurt, they had Marshall, they had all their receivers - and we went out there and did what we had to do to win that ballgame. If you don't believe us the first time, maybe the second time you'll believe us.'

After the Rams drove 57 yards for a field goal on the opening drive, the Panthers forced four turnovers in the first half. But Carolina had nothing to show for it. Steve Beuerlein threw two interceptions inside the Rams' 10 and mishandled the clock to allow time to expire before the Panthers could attempt a field goal before halftime.

The Panthers defense needed to do more. When Warner and Faulk drove to the Panthers 16 on the opening drive of the third quarter, it was time to step up.

``We finally figured it out. We set our standards just a little bit higher,' Evans said. ``We felt like we had to put points on the board. We've played well enough in the past to have a chance to win ballgames. Sometimes you have to do a little bit extra.'

Warner tried to hit Bruce on an out route, but Hitchcock stepped in for the pick at the Panthers 12 and took off up the sideline. Warner tried to cut off the angle but failed near midfield, leaving Hitchcock in the clear.

``When I saw the confidence with which Warner threw that ball, I could feel my heart kind of sink,' Seifert said. ``I literally was paying attention to him quite a bit because I could get a sense from his rhythm to how open a receiver was. My sense on that one was this guy was open, but Jimmy read it perfectly and made a great play on it.'

The offense appreciated the lift.

``As he was running down the sidelines, I felt this big black piece of lead being lifted off my shoulders,' Beuerlein said. ``When I saw Kurt Warner emulating me trying to run down a defensive back, I knew that there was no way he was going to catch Jimmy. For the first time all day I actually smiled after that play.'

Said Muhammad: ``It felt like we were under pressure the whole game because we weren't putting it in the end zone and that really took the foot off our neck and eased up the pressure. From there we were comfortable and just played.'

The offense did it's part the rest of the way, controlling the ball for 16 minutes, 32 seconds, compared to 5:57 for the Rams the rest of the way and driving inside the Rams 20 three times to set up short Joe Nedney field goals.

The victory keeps the Panthers' playoff hopes flickering.

``It was the most excited I've seen our club since I've been here,' Seifert said. ``They fought hard and they played the world champions. ... To be able to hold them down like that is something you have to get excited about.'\ \ Contact Scott Michaux at (704) 540-7230 or smichaux@worldnet.att.net

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