In The Driver's Seat

Panthers keep cool, clip reeling Ravens

Panic was never a consideration.

With his Carolina Panthers trailing the Baltimore Ravens Sunday by three points at halftime of a game they had to win to keep their NFC West championship hopes alive, coach Dom Capers delivered a quick reminder: ``We've been here before.''

Four times this season, the Panthers had won games after trailing at halftime.

Make it five.

Carolina (11-4) roared back to beat the Ravens 27-16 for their sixth consecutive victory and are one victory from winning their first divisional title and clinching a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Their big chance comes next Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) at Ericsson Stadium, where the Panthers are 7-0.

``Who's house is this? Our house!'' the players chanted in the locker room moments after beating Baltimore.

Carolina fans probably were nervous when the Ravens led 13-10 at halftime, but the Panthers offered fast reassurance in the second half.

The offense got the ball to open the third quarter and drove methodically downfield to snatch the lead from the Ravens.

The Panthers went 76 yards in 12 plays, with quarterback Kerry Collins a sizzling 5-of-5 passing.

On a crucial fourth-and-inches from the Baltimore 41, Collins gained 2 yards on a quarterback sneak.

On third-and-5 from the 34, Collins zipped a pass over the middle to Mark Carrier, who eluded defenders and turned the play into a 26-yard gain.

Then, on third-and-goal from the 6, Collins found Carrier in the center of the end zone. It gave the Panthers a 17-13 lead and they never trailed again.

``That drive set the tone for our offense and it inspired our defense,'' said tight end Wesley Walls. ``After that, the defense went out and stuffed them.''

And Collins finished them off, leading the Panthers to another touchdown on a drive that consumed 6 1/2 minutes late in the fourth quarter. The touchdown came on a 1-yard pass to rookie fullback Scott Greene.

In a nice encore to his 327-yard, three-touchdown performance in last week's victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Collins completed 26-of-39 passes for 268 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

He was at his best in the second half, when the Panthers needed him most.

``Kerry got hot,'' said Walls. ``He was poised back there and he was making the right reads. He's been doing that a lot lately. He's the main reason we've won six in a row.''

The Panthers have accomplished far more than any NFL expansion team in its second season. They've clinched at least a first-round playoff game at Ericsson Stadium on Dec. 28 or 29.

``That's fine and dandy,'' said Capers. ``But the way I look at that is I want to have the first game at home and the first week off. That's all I'm concerned about right now.''

To get the bye, which would put their opening playoff game on Jan. 4 or 5, the Panthers probably have to beat the Steelers.

Sunday got them ready for that pressure. In order to beat the Ravens, the Panthers had to avoid falling into what appeared to be an obvious trap.

They were coming off their big win over the 49ers and were facing a Baltimore team that was 0-7 on the road this season. It would have been easy to take the Ravens as lightly as a poem.

``History tells you that you have to guard against a letdown after a big win,'' Capers said. ``My concern was more about all the praise and good things that were being said about our team all week. We talked about blocking those peripheral distractions out.

``You can't listen to all those things. It's human nature to relax after a big win and I don't think our team relaxed at all.

``Essentially, this was a championship game for us today. We had to win. If we lost this game today, next week's game wouldn't mean nearly as much.''

The Panthers started out strong.

Outside linebacker Kevin Greene decked Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde on the first play of the game to raise his season sack total to 14 1/2. Two plays later, safety Chad Cota intercepted a Testaverde pass and returned it to the Baltimore 30.

If the Panthers had converted the turnover into a touchdown, perhaps they could have started a rout. Instead, they stalled, settling for a 29-yard field goal by John Kasay and a 3-0 lead.

Baltimore responded by driving 76 yards to take the lead.

The touchdown was a bit of a fluke. Testaverde lofted a 23-yard pass into the right corner of the end zone. Cornerback Eric Davis had a chance for an interception, but couldn't hold on and the deflection landed in the hands of receiver Michael Jackson for a 7-3 Ravens lead.

The Panthers reclaimed the lead 10-7 on a 66-yard drive, which culminated in a 2-yard run by Anthony Johnson.

Later in the game, Johnson became the first Panthers back to gain 1,000 yards in a season. He finished the game with 81 yards, raising his season total to 1,052.

The Ravens gave the Panthers a jolt with two second-quarter field goals by Matt Stover, which gave them a 13-10 halftime lead.

But both teams held true to their recent histories in the second half. Baltimore had led in nine consecutive games, but won only two. The Panthers had allowed just 10 second-half points at home.

``We feel like we own the second half,'' said defensive end Gerald Williams.

The Panthers definitely owned this one, outscoring the Ravens 17-3 in the final two quarters to raise their second-half advantage at Ericsson to 96-13.

Now Carolina is one win from completing one of the most magically improbable regular seasons in NFL history.

``It's a sweet feeling,'' said linebacker Carlton Bailey. ``There's no place like first place.''

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