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Panthers in thick of wild-card hunt with win

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- The Carolina Panthers were a joke two
months ago, in danger of becoming the answer to a trivia question
as the biggest bust following a Super Bowl season.

Don't look now, but the Panthers are surging, and moved into the
thick of the playoff race Sunday with a 20-7 victory over the St.
Louis Rams.

Carolina (6-7) has won five straight and is now 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
39-year-old Chris Chandler 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 ended a
Rams drive by wrestling the ball away from Torry Holt to 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, and 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 in all -- Shaun McDonald
muffed a punt that Carolina recovered -- and 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 over 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 TD 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 TD
plunge. He now has run for 100 yards or more in all four of his
starts -- tying the mark Stephen Davis set last season.

Game notes
Carolina linebackers coach Sam Mills was given the George
Halas award from the Professional Football Writers Association
before the game as the coach or player who has overcome an injury
or personal problems. ... St. Louis linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa left
the game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury. ... Carolina
cornerback Chris Gamble injured his groin in the second half and
center Jeff Mitchell hurt his knee. ... Holt had six catches for
151 yards.