If the Carolina Panthers decide to give each of their games a title after the season, Sunday's 20-10 victory over the St. Louis Rams might be named ``The Ugly Duckling.''
The first half, which ended with the Rams ahead by 7, was anything but pretty.
The Panthers totaled 78 yards of offense and were penalized eight times for 76, meaning their net gain was a measly 2 yards.
Their excellent kick returners, Michael Bates and Winslow Oliver, suffered injuries and had to leave the game.
Quarterback Kerry Collins missed the game with a shoulder sprain suffered last Sunday. His replacement, Steve Beuerlein, tripped three times, threw an interception and was sacked four times.
At halftime, the depleted Panthers looked doomed to their fifth consecutive loss on the road.
Then an amazing transformation happened.
The Panthers scored on their first two drives of the third quarter and went on to dominate the Rams 17-0 in the second half.
They finished with a beautiful swan of a victory.
``Our team took another step up the ladder today,'' said coach Dom Capers. ``The way we won this game is a tribute to the character of our football players. We hung in there. I sensed a feeling of closeness on the sideline.
``It was a great win for us on the road. It couldn't come at a better time.''
With a 7-4 record with five games remaining, the Panthers are in position to earn a wild-card berth in their second season.
``We may as well start talking about it,'' said tight end Wesley Walls. ``You can't hardly deny we're in the hunt. We can't just say, `Aw, we've got to concentrate on the next game.'
``The fact of the matter is we're in the picture. We're there, and we're not going away.''
The Panthers play at 6-5 Houston next Sunday, then return to Ericsson Stadium for a Dec. 1 game against Tampa Bay.
Sunday's game, and perhaps the playoff drive, turned on the tense moments early in the second half when officials huddled in the end zone to decide whether to credit Walls with a touchdown or a dropped pass.
There was 10:10 remaining in the third quarter. Carolina, behind 10-3 at halftime, had driven from its 46 to the Rams 9.
On first-and-goal, Beuerlein zipped a pass to Walls in the end zone. Walls caught the ball, but had it barely an instant before St. Louis safety Keith Lyle smacked him hard in the chest and jarred it loose.
One official ruled it an incompletion.
Another thought Walls had made the catch and got his feet down before the hit, which is what the television replays appeared to show.
The officials huddled to talk it over.
The Rams kept yelling that it was an incompletion.
For a while, Walls was laying flat on his back and couldn't say anything.
``The guy (Lyle) hit me in the chest with a good, clean lick and knocked my breath out,'' Walls said. ``I couldn't really breathe at all. I was trying to yell, but I couldn't.
``Eventually, I was able to get in there and argue my case. I saw one ref -- I could read his lips -- tell another guy I'd had possession. So I knew I had one guy arguing for me over there.''
But Walls couldn't be sure as he waited for agonizing minutes.
``It was an obvious touchdown to me, but in the time it took for them to make that call, a lot of thoughts go through your head,'' he said. ``A frustration starts building in your head -- a tension. You think, `Oh my gosh, he's not going to give us the score. He's not going to make the right call.' ''
Finally, with official Ron Phares, who lives in Huntersville, making the strongest case on Walls' behalf, referee Tom White turned on his microphone and announced the judgment: ``The ruling on the field is a touchdown.''
``It was a relief to see him raise those arms up for a touchdown,'' Walls said. ``When I saw that, I knew we were going to win the game.''
And the Rams (3-8) started worrying about the opposite.
``It was a bad call,'' said Lyle. ``We put a hit on him and he dropped it. . . . I think it deflated us.''
St. Louis coach Rich Brooks called it a ``gratuitous'' call by the officials.
The touchdown tied the game at 10 and gave the Panthers a surge of momentum.
After forcing the Rams to punt, the Panthers stayed hot. A 69-yard drive was keyed by a 9-yard pass from Beuerlein to Walls on third-and-5 and two reverses for 20 yard by Rocket Ismail.
The second reverse got the ball to the 7, and Anthony Johnson scored from there to put the Panthers ahead 17-10.
Carolina never trailed again. The offense wore down the Rams behind Johnson, who finished with 123 yards rushing. The defense teed off on St. Louis rookie quarterback Tony Banks, finishing with 6 sacks -- 2 1/2 by outside linebacker Kevin Greene.
``What's all this crap about how we can't win on the road?'' said Greene. ``We can do it. It's just a matter of mind focus.''
The Panthers sealed the win with a 14-play, 64-yard drive late in the fourth quarter that resulted in a 34-yard field goal by John Kasay.
Carolina ran Johnson nine times on the drive and he gained 46 yards. Beuerlein and wide receiver Willie Green connected twice on third-down passes to keep the possession going.
Capers called the drive ``pretty.''
Beuerlein said it was ``beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.''
``It was an ideal way to wrap it up,'' said Beuerlein. ``We didn't have an ideal start, but the bottom line is the ending.''