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Panthers 16 \ Rams 10

ST. LOUIS - It was the perfect end to an imperfect game, the perfect play for an imperfect day.

The Carolina Panthers defeated the St. Louis Rams 16-10 Sunday when a substitute player found himself in the wrong spot but at the right time with the game on the line and a season in the balance.Israel Raybon, a defensive end with only eight NFL games of experience, knocked down a Mark Rypien pass in the end zone on a fourth-down play that preserved the win and saved Carolina's playoff hopes.

And he wasn't even supposed to be there.

Raybon, whose job in short-yardage is to stop the run, found himself three yards deep in the end zone with the ball coming at him.

``I got knocked down,' Raybon said. ``I didn't want to just lay on the ground. I decided to get up and be a football player. I dropped into coverage.'

``We don't have any plays where Israel drops into coverage,' Dom Capers, the Panthers' coach, said.

The Rams had driven to the 1-yard line with 1:18 to play, having already run three plays from inside Carolina's 5. After a St. Louis timeout, the Panthers sent in their run defense, a package that included all of Carolina's run stoppers and only two defensive backs.

St. Louis ran the exact play the Panthers hoped it would, tipping it off by sending the halfback in motion. Rypien, playing for injured Tony Banks, rolled to his right and threw a pass back to his left toward wide-open Aaron Laing.

Raybon, staggering into Rypien's view, lunged and tipped the ball away at the last second.

Rypien didn't know who had broken up the pass, but he thought it was nose tackle Greg Kragen. Carolina's Shawn King cleared things up for the media.

``That's Bon,' he said ``RAY Bon.'

Before Raybon's play, the Panthers had wasted all but a yard of their slim lead. Carolina dominated the game, but a returned fumble recovery for a touchdown and a rare field goal by Jeff Wilkins gave the Rams hope for a miracle finish.

Coming into the game on a seven-game losing streak and fighting turmoil after waiving running back Lawrence Phillips on Thursday, the Rams led early, fell behind late then had a chance to win at the end.

``Just when you think it can't get any worse, it does,' Ernie Conwell, the Ram's starting tight end, said.

St. Louis scored first, stunning the Panthers with a defensive play of its own in the second quarter. Kerry Collins was sacked by Kevin Carter, who knocked the ball loose just as defensive end Leslie O'Neal arrived. O'Neal scooped the fumble at the St. Louis 34 and ran untouched 66 yards for the first touchdown since his rookie season.

Carolina tied the game only a minute later when Collins hit Rocket Ismail on a post-pattern that produced the longest touchdown play of the year, a 59-yard scoring play.

``We've been waiting, and waiting for one of those types of plays,' Capers said. ``It couldn't have come at a better time for us.'

Without a running attack - Fred Lane carried 19 times for 41 yards - the Panthers once again went to a desperate passing game.

Unlike previous games against Denver and San Francisco, Collins responded. The third-year quarterback completed 12 straight passes in a key stretch, setting up a 36-yard field goal by John Kasay before halftime that put the Panthers up 10-7.

St. Louis tied the game on a 26-yard field goal by Wilkins, his first in four games, early in the third period, but the Panthers answered. This time, Kasay boomed a 53-yard field goal at the end of a short Carolina series and eventually put St. Louis in a tough position after Kasay's third field goal gave the Panthers a six-point lead.

``That was a big field goal because they knew they had to make a touchdown,' Capers said.

They almost did. Eddie Kennison gave the Rams field position when he returned a punt across midfield with four minutes left. Rypien, who had entered the game late in the first half when Banks left with a concussion, hit tight end Ernie Conwell for a 34-yard gain that gave St. Louis a first down at the Carolina 3 with two minutes left.

From there, the Rams tried a bootleg that ended in an incompletion, two runs up the middle and the final roll-out pass to Laing that Raybon stepped in front of at the last second.

``I knew what I was doing,' Raybon said.

Even if no one else did.\ THE GAME REPORT STARS: Tyrone Poole led the team with six unassisted tackles, and had four punt returns for 56 yards.

WORTH MENTIONING: Tony Banks had gone 88 passes without an interception before Eric Davis picked one off in the first quarter.

RECORD BOOK: John Kasay's 53-yard field goal was his second longest ever. he had a 54-yarder earlier this season.\ - Ed Hardin\


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