It might take a perfect effort by the Carolina Panthers (12-5) to beat the Rams (12-4) at St. Louis in today’s NFC division playoff game considering that:
* The Rams have won a franchise-record 14 straight games at home, and all four postseason games played at Edward Jones Dome;
* Playing inside the dome, St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk will be able to slash and cut, and receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce will be able to race down the field in high gear without concern for the ugly conditions outside, where temperatures may drop below 10 degrees;
* Ram Coach Mike Martz seems to have his offense running as smoothly as it did in 1999 when, with Martz as offensive coordinator under then-head coach Dick Vermeil, the St. Louis juggernaut rolled all the way to a Super Bowl title. The Rams, with 447 points this season, tied the Indianapolis Colts for second in the league in scoring. The Kansas City Chiefs led with 484;
* Although the Ram defense gave up an average of 315.8 yards a game, ranking in the middle of the pack, there are two menacing figures for the Panthers to be concerned with. Defensive end Leonard Little had his third consecutive season of at least a dozen sacks. And safety Aeneas Williams has six postseason interceptions, two shy of the league record.
But with all that, don’t rule out that perfect effort by Carolina, not after last week.
Going into the wild-card game against Dallas, all the attention was on the Cowboys and the one-season turnaround pulled off by Coach Bill Parcells.
But against Dallas’ defense, the league’s best, Carolina had no turnovers and no penalties in winning, 29-10. The only other team in playoff history to record those double zeros was the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl X.
“I think that comes from focus,” Panther Coach John Fox said.
The key to Carolina’s offense is running back Stephen Davis. Steve Spurrier, until recently coach of the Washington Redskins, didn’t see enough in Davis to keep him after last season, but Davis figures to get plenty of work today after rushing for a career-high 1,444 yards this season.
Carolina has its own sack attack, led by defensive ends Mike Rucker, with 12, and Julius Peppers, with seven.
Of all the teams in the playoffs, the Panthers are the biggest surprise. Two years ago, they were 1-15. Last season, they were 7-9 and still at the bottom of their division.
Can they continue this spectacular comeback by upsetting St. Louis?
To the Panthers, it makes perfect sense.