His first thought was to catch the ball, which he did. As he streaked toward the end zone, Steve Smith’s next thought was the 28 messages on his answering machine last week.
“Fourteen of them said, ‘Good game,’ ” the Carolina Panther receiver said. “Fourteen said, ‘How did you get stopped at the one?’ ”
That was in reference to the Panthers’ victory over the Dallas Cowboys last week, a game in which Smith was the offensive star, but with an asterisk. His long catch-and-run on the third play fell a yard short of the end zone when he was caught from behind.
He would not let it happen Saturday.
Beating St. Louis safety Jason Sehorn, Smith scored on a 69-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second overtime. The Panthers stunned the Rams, 29-23, to advance to the NFC championship game for the second time in franchise history.
There will be plenty more phone messages for Smith today. None of them will contain any complaints.
“I messed that play up 10 times in practice,” said Smith, who finished with six catches for 163 yards and the biggest touchdown of his life.
This time, he ran it perfectly. Knowing that the Rams would be in a cover-2 defense -- a zone alignment in which each safety covers half the field -- Smith faked as if he were going to cut to the outside. As he did, quarterback Jake Delhomme pump-faked.
Sehorn bit on the fake, but Smith cut toward the middle. Sehorn was too late getting back into position when Delhomme delivered his pass toward the middle. Smith easily eluded Sehorn and silenced the sellout crowd of 66,165 with the touchdown.
The catch capped a remarkable game that featured five lead changes and an 11-point comeback by the Rams in the fourth quarter that sent the game into overtime.
Carolina will face the winner of today’s Philadelphia Eagle-Green Bay Packer game in next Sunday’s conference title game.
If the Eagles win, the Panthers travel to Philadelphia. If Green Bay wins, Carolina will play host to the Packers.
“I’ve never seen a game quite like that,” said Panther Coach John Fox. “I’m as proud as I could be of our team. We’ve come a long way. We’ve had more close games than I’d like to remember, today included.”
The Panthers won seven games that were decided by three or fewer points this season. And now this.
They might have gotten some help from Ram Coach Mike Martz, who elected to play for the overtime in the final seconds rather than take a few shots into the end zone.
With 42 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the Rams at the Panther 19-yard line, Martz had Marshall Faulk run a play that went for four yards. He still had 24 seconds left after the play, but he chose to run the clock down to three seconds and call a timeout.
The Rams’ Jeff Wilkins then kicked his fifth field goal to tie the score at 23 with no time remaining.
“I felt like if we went into overtime, we’d win the game,” Martz said.
Maybe next time.
Each team missed a field-goal attempt in the first overtime, and the Rams had a nice drive going late in the session.
Quarterback Marc Bulger’s 25-yard completion to Faulk brought the Rams to the Carolina 38 with 1:12 to play. But his pass to Torry Holt was intercepted by Carolina’s Ricky Manning, who made a sensational play in wrestling it away from Holt.
The Panthers needed only three more plays to win it. On third and 14 from their own 31, Delhomme called out the play in the huddle: “X-Clown.”
“It was a great job by Steve on the play,” Delhomme said. “He’s gonna be a good one.”
He already is.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Longest Playoff Games
Playoff games that have gone past one overtime, with time of overtime, score, round, date and factors that helped to determine the outcome:
*--* 22:40 MIAMI DOLPHINS 27, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 24 AFC divisional game, Dec. 25, 1971
Garo Yepremian made amends for his missed field goal in the first overtime by kicking a 37-yard field goal with 7:20 remaining in the second overtime to end the longest game ever played. Kansas City’s Jan Stenerud missed a field goal with 1:25 left in regulation and had another attempt blocked in the first overtime.
*--* 17:54 DALLAS TEXANS 20, HOUSTON OILERS 17 AFL championship , Dec. 23, 1962
Tommy Brooker kicked a 25-yard field goal with 12:06 remaining in the second overtime as the Texans survived a 17-point second-half comeback to dethrone the two-time defending AFL champions.
*--* 17:02 CLEVELAND BROWNS 23, NEW YORK JETS 20 AFC divisional game , Jan. 3, 1987
Bernie Kosar set NFL playoff records by throwing 64 passes for 489 yards as the Browns rallied from a 10-point deficit with 4:14 left. Mark Moseley’s 22-yard field goal with seven seconds left forced overtime and his 27-yarder won the game with 12:58 left in the second overtime.
*--* 15:43 OAKLAND RAIDERS 37, BALTIMORE COLTS 31 AFC divisional game , Dec. 24, 1977
Ken Stabler threw three touchdown passes to tight end Dave Casper, the last a 10-yarder 43 seconds into the second overtime. After Stabler connected with Casper on a 42-yard pass play to the Colts’ 14, Errol Mann kicked a game-tying field goal with 29 seconds left in regulation.
*--* 15:10 CAROLINA PANTHERS 29, ST. LOUIS RAMS 23 NFC divisional game, Jan. 10, 2004
Steve Smith turned a pass from Jake Delhomme into a 69-yard touchdown on the first play of the second overtime after the Rams had overcome an 11-point deficit with eight minutes left in regulation. Jeff Wilkins, whose field goal tied it at the end of regulation, and Carolina’s John Kasay each missed a field-goal attempt in the first overtime.