Panthers down Dallas, advance to NFC championship game

It ended mercifully.

The Carolina Panthers, in their second season, were 1 yard from a touchdown with 68 seconds remaining in their first playoff game.

The team playing defense was the Dallas Cowboys, the defending Super Bowl champions, a team with three Super Bowl titles in the past four years.

The Panthers didn't try to score. They didn't need to score.

They took a knee. Twice.

Then the clock ran out and the blue-towel-waving celebration began at Ericsson Stadium.

On a sunny Sunday in Charlotte, the Panthers beat the Cowboys 26-17 in a game that may have ended the Dallas dynasty.

``The Cowboys are America's Team, but we let the world know today that there's a new kid on the block, and that's the Carolina Panthers,'' said linebacker Lamar Lathon.

The amazing Panthers (13-4) advanced to the NFC Championship Game next Sunday in Green Bay. They'll play the Packers (14-3), who are favored by nine points, at Lambeau Field for the right to play in Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans.

``We'd go to Iceland to play that game,'' said safety Pat Terrell, who's interception with 2:16 remaining was the play of the game.

Carolina's win completed a wild weekend that has turned the NFL completely upside down. Only four teams are left in the playoff chase, and two of them are last year's expansion teams, the Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jacksonville advanced to the AFC Championship Game at New England with a 30-27 victory at Denver Saturday.

``That squeaking noise you hear,'' said agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents Panthers Kerry Collins, Kevin Greene, Eric Davis and Terrell, ``is the sound of the shift of power in the NFL.''

The Cowboys' troubles started immediately when star wide receiver Michael Irvin, the subject of controversy all week, suffered a fractured collarbone on Dallas' second play.

He gained 22 yards, but didn't play again after getting tackled hard by linebacker Lamar Lathon.

Without him, the Cowboys struggled.

Carolina won by playing Cowboys-style football. The Panthers had the punishing defense that forced field goals when touchdowns were possible. Anthony Johnson, not Emmitt Smith, gained 100 yards rushing -- 104 on 26 carries. Collins, not Troy Aikman, was the more efficient quarterback.

The Panthers intercepted Aikman three times, including twice in the final 136 seconds to clinch the win.

The finish was nerve-racking, as Carolina tried to cling to a 23-17 lead it had built with two first-half touchdown passes by Collins and three field goals by John Kasay.

With less than four minutes remaining, it was anybody's game, especially when the Panthers reached the Cowboys 41 then had to punt.

Rohn Stark's kick hung high and came down inside the 5.

Johnson was the first man down and slapped the ball with his right hand to keep it out of the end zone. Dwight Stone then dove on the ball at the 2, downing it and forcing the Cowboys to start their drive there.

With 3:44 remaining, the Cowboys were 98 yards from a touchdown, but it didn't seem impossible because Aikman was their quarterback.

``With Troy in there, those 98 yards seemed like about 30,'' said Terrell.

Two pass interference calls against cornerback Tyrone Poole helped the Cowboys to a first down at their 37.

Then Aikman dropped back to pass, looking long, throwing deep in Poole's direction. His target was Kevin Williams.

While Poole was trying to match Williams step-for-step, Terrell drifted over from his safety position to help, remembering the ``tips'' some teammates had given on the sidelines a few minutes earlier.

``When you have as many veterans on your team as we do, you grab what you hear,'' Terrell said. ``Guys were saying, `They're getting frustrated. They need a big play. They're going to try to make something happen.'

``When I saw Troy Aikman take a deep drop, I knew it was going to either be a screen or a deep ball. Since I was already 40 yards deep and couldn't do much about a screen, I stayed back there and got a good jump on the ball.''

Terrell leaped in front of Williams and Poole and made the interception.

``When I saw the ball coming, it looked like the words on the Goodyear blimp,'' Terrell said. ``It was saying, `This is the game,' so I went up and caught it.''

Terrell returned 49 yards to the Dallas 19.

The Panthers played it safe from there, giving the ball to Johnson three times on running plays to set up Kasay's field goal try.

Kasay kicked it perfect from 32 yards to give the Panthers a 26-17 lead, which seemed to put a win out of the Cowboys' reach.

Still, Aikman tried to pull off a miracle, but that possibility ended when he was intercepted by linebacker Sam Mills, who returned the ball to the Dallas 1 with 1:08 remaining.

Then, and only then, the Panthers took it easy on the Cowboys.

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