Miracle On Mint Street

Clutch Cota interception clinches NFC West

There's a new hero in town: Chad Cota.

On a Carolina Panthers defense dominated by 30-something veterans, the 24-year-old Cota made the play that won the West.

With the Pittsburgh Steelers 8 yards from a potential game-winning touchdown in the heart-stopping final minute of Sunday's game at Ericsson Stadium, Cota made a diving interception in the end zone to preserve Carolina's 18-14 win.

``The young pup lost his baby teeth and got his canines today,'' linebacker Carlton Bailey said.

``You've gotta love that Chad,'' said cornerback Eric Davis. ``Somebody go give him a kiss.''

Some of Cota's teammates did just that in a Carolina locker room filled with hugs, tears and victory cigars.

The win gave the Panthers (12-4) the championship of the NFC West in only their second season, ending the San Francisco 49ers' four-year reign, and earned them a first-round bye in the playoffs. Carolina will take a seven-game winning streak and an 8-0 home record into the NFC semifinal game it will host on Jan. 4 or 5. The Panthers, who won't know if they play Dallas, Philadelphia or San Francisco until after next weekend's opening-round games, have the next three days off. They return to practice Thursday.

``I couldn't be prouder of our football team right now,'' said coach Dom Capers. ``We accomplished something that at the beginning of the season not many people would have given us a chance to accomplish.

``The way the game ended was a fitting ending. It showed the strength and the will of our guys. That's what you have to do in these kinds of games. You have to hang in there and fight and fight and fight.''

Pittsburgh (10-6) put up a much tougher fight than expected. Because they'd been eliminated from contention for a first-round playoff bye after New England's 23-22 victory over the New York Giants Saturday, Sunday's game was meaningless for the Steelers.

Coach Bill Cowher rested four defensive starters -- linebackers Chad Brown and Jerry Olsavsky, defensive lineman Brentson Buckner and safety Carnell Lake. And Cowher pulled Pro Bowl running back Jerome Bettis and quarterback Mike Tomczak early in the game

But the backups, especially quarterback Kordell Stewart, almost broke Carolina hearts.

``You saw why the Steelers are the Steelers,'' said Capers.

And it was obvious why Capers and his coaching staff spent the past week sweating over the prospects of seeing Stewart at quarterback.

Stewart stunned the Panthers, who started fast with a 9-0 lead, with a single scintillating play. He scrambled 80 yards for a touchdown midway through the second quarter to give the Steelers a 14-9 lead.

It was the longest touchdown run by a quarterback in NFL history and the longest play from scrimmage against the Panthers, surpassing the 77-yard touchdown pass Buffalo's Jim Kelly threw to Ike Copeland early last season.

``Kordell Stewart was our biggest concern coming into the game,'' Capers said. ``He can improvise and turn a play you might have defended into a big play because of his ability to run the ball. They're a different kind of dangerous with him in the game.''

The Steelers' 14-9 lead stood at halftime, but the Panthers said they remained confident. They'd come from behind to win five previous games this season after trailing at halftime.

True to form, the Panthers came back. Three field goals by John Kasay built Carolina's lead to 18-14 in the fourth quarter, but Stewart and the Steelers had two gigantic opportunities in the final five minutes for game-winning scores.

They drove from their 41 to the Panthers 6, where Cowher chose to go for a touchdown rather than kick a field goal that would have cut the Panthers' lead to 1.

It was almost a masterful call.

Stewart's pass to receiver Ernie Mills was perfect, but Mills dropped the ball.

``I just didn't squeeze it,'' he said.

That was Escape No. 1.

After a Carolina punt, the Steelers got the ball at the Carolina 40 with 3:29 left.

What a finish it was from there.

Stewart's passing and running got the Steelers to the Carolina 9 with 1:53 left.

Everything was at stake for the Panthers -- the division title, the playoff bye, an unbeaten home season at Ericsson.

The Steelers had nothing to win, and nothing to lose.

Those final 113 seconds went agonizingly slow.

``It seemed like a lifetime,'' said wide receiver Willie Green, who watched nervously from the sidelines. ``I don't want to ever go through anything like that again. It was a very, very scary time.''

A defensive holding penalty against linebacker Kevin Greene with 1:10 remaining gave the Steelers a first down at the 1.

``I never stopped believing in our defense, but when it got that close, my faith started thinning,'' said tight end Wesley Walls.

Then offensive guard Brendan Stai was penalized 5 yards for a false start and the Steelers were backed up to the 6.

After Shawn King tackled Stewart for a 2-yard loss, the Steelers were at the 8 with less than a minute was left.

``That was the most intense feeling I've had on the sidelines the whole year because I knew what was at stake,'' said Capers.

``I was about to go crazy,'' said Walls.

On third-and-goal, Pittsburgh had five receivers on the field. The Panthers were in their dime package, which includes six defensive backs, but would have preferred to have had a seventh player in the secondary.

Linebacker Sam Mills ideally wouldn't have been in the game and wound up guarding the receiver (Andre Hastings) Stewart threw to.

``I was stressed big-time,'' said Mills. ``I saw five wide receivers on the field and I knew I was the slowest guy out there. I said, `This could be interesting.' ``

Pittsburgh had run the same play for a Tomczak-to-Hastings touchdown in the second quarter.

Cota remembered and moved to help out Mills.

He turned to his right and leaned in to steal the pass just before it got to Hastings.

Hastings reached in and tried to yank it away from Cota, hoping to get a touchdown call.

But officials ruled it an interception and Carolina had the first championship in its brief history.

Finally, the tension was broken.

``Football is life at warp speed,'' said Panthers kicker John Kasay. ``It is a crazy, wild, unbelievable thing.''

The interception set off a frenzied celebration by a screaming, towel-waving Ericsson crowd of 72,217.

``You could tell standing out there on that field that it was a a big win, not just a regular win,'' said Mills. ``You could tell just by listening to the crowd, and the roar. It continued on. It just stayed up there. It was almost like it was a recording. It just kept going and going and going.

``It was beautiful, man.''

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