Panthers ramble to biggest triumph

The St. Louis Rams have a new distinction.

They're no longer the only team in the NFC West not to lose to the Carolina Panthers.

St. Louis is now the team the Panthers clobbered worse than any other in their 22-game history.

Carolina spelled ``payback'' in big numbers Sunday at Ericsson Stadium, rocking the Rams 45-13 to win by more points (32) than the previous high they'd scored in a game (29).

``It was a dominating performance,'' said center Curtis Whitley. ``We did whatever we wanted to do, whenever we wanted to do it.''

Team records fell almost as fast as Michael Bates ran 93 yards down the left sideline for the franchise's first kickoff return for a touchdown.

The Panthers set single-game records for rushing yards as a team (184) and by an individual (Anthony Johnson, 126). They ran so efficiently they got three touchdown passes from Kerry Collins despite the fact his 18 pass attempts were the fewest Carolina has ever tried in a game.

``They dominated us in every phase,'' said Rams coach Rich Brooks, whose team fell to 1-5 with its fifth consecutive loss. ``It was ugly and it was embarrassing.''

It was nothing like last year's St. Louis-Carolina games, won by the Rams 31-10 and 28-17. The players who weren't with the Panthers last season made the difference.

Carolina's first five touchdowns were scored by players acquired during the offseason. Tight end Wesley Walls caught two touchdown passes, linebacker Kevin Greene returned a fumble 66 yards for a touchdown on a made-for-SportsCenter play, and rookie wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad turned a short pass into a 54-yard score.

The victory completed a first-half sweep of the NFC West for the Panthers, who are 4-0 in the division and 0-2 against other teams. Carolina begins the second round of divisional games next week at home against the New Orleans Saints.

``Being 4-0 in the division means a bunch,'' said offensive tackle Blake Brockermeyer. ``That's hard to do in the NFL. To sweep all eight games this season would be almost impossible, but we'd sure like to be able to win at least six of them.''

Sunday's win was particularly impressive because the Panthers were playing without five injured starters -- three on defense (end Mike Fox, cornerback Tyrone Poole and strong safety Brett Maxie).

The Panthers set the tone as they did in two previous games at Ericsson, scoring a touchdown on their first possession.

Collins moved the Panthers 68 yards on nine plays mostly by passing to running backs. He hit Johnson, Howard Griffith and Winslow Oliver a combined four times to take advantage of the Rams' vulnerable area. St. Louis had given up 53 completions to backs this season.

The touchdown came when Collins free-lanced, rolling right to avoid a rush and finding Walls open in the right corner of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown.

The Rams looked ready to strike on their next drive, moving to the Panthers 18 before disaster struck. Rookie quarterback Tony Banks dropped back to pass but was hit and stripped of the ball by defensive end Shawn King and Greene picked up the fumble far ahead of any Rams.

``When I first saw him get it, all I could think was, `Don't miss the layup,' '' said nose tackle Greg Kragen.

Here's how teammate Lamar Lathon says he would have described what happened next if he'd been announcing:

``Greene picks the ball up. He's to the 50. He's to the 40. I think he's going to make it. Ohhhhh! He dives into the end zone. It's a touchdown!''

Greene didn't exactly dive into the end zone. He lunged the final 5 yards, delighting the crowd of 70,535.

``I just wanted to float in,'' said Greene. ``I was about to do a double-gainer. That would have really freaked you out.''

The touchdown was the second of Greene's 12-year career and came against his former team. His previous score was a 35-yard interception return against Houston in 1987 when he played for the Rams.

Carolina upped its lead to 21-0 when Muhammad scored his first touchdown. Collins threw to him on the right sideline at the Rams 35 and Muhammad muscled away from safety Keith Lyle and ran untouched the rest of the way.

Collins' only mistake led to the Rams' first score. He threw a pass too far behind Carrier and cornerback Anthony Parker caught the tip and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown.

The Rams ruined their faint comeback hopes with a terrible blunder on the ensuing kickoff.

Bates, who was third in NFL kickoff returns, was held to a 15-yard return, but the Rams had to kick again when Keith Crawford was called offsides. Bates made St. Louis pay by returning the second kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.

St. Louis managed a late first-half touchdown to pull within 28-13, but got blown away by the Panthers in the third quarter. Led by Johnson's 82 yards rushing, Carolina pulled away with a 22-yard field goal by John Kasay and a 19-yard touchdown pass from Collins to Walls.

The Panthers' final score came with 3:44 remaining on a 2-yard run by backup Dino Philyaw on fourth-and-1. It was the second time on the drive Panthers coach Dom Capers chose to go on fourth down instead of kick a field goal.

Capers said he thought a field goal was ``meaningless'' and stressed he wasn't trying to run up the score.

``After the way they beat us last year, that was the thing to do -- stick it to 'em,'' said Whitley.

This was a win so convincing the Panthers were able to joke as they tried to decide which long touchdown -- Greene's, Bates' or Muhammad's -- was their favorite.

``What about that Michael Bates?'' said Whitley. ``He had the medal. They didn't. Could you tell?''

Whitley was referring to the bronze medal Bates won in the 200 meters at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

``Hey, now, people told me after they saw me and Bates running down the sidelines that he and I could be brothers,'' said Greene.

He broke into laughter.

``I'd be the first to admit I was stumbling, bumbling and rumbling the whole time,'' he said.

It was a good day to be a former Ram.

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