Panthers just stayin' alive

Raybon saves playoff hopes, 6th victory

It's not over yet.

Just when it looked like the St. Louis Rams were going to put the final dagger in the Carolina Panthers' chances of salvaging a meaningful season, Israel Raybon showed up at the right time in the wrong place.

Raybon, a reserve defensive lineman, defelected a fourth-and-goal pass from the 1 by Mark Rypien to complete a dramatic goal-line stand and save a 16-10 victory for the Panthers.

Raybon was supposed to be chasing Rypien, not playing a football version of volleyball on the play -- coach Dom Capers admitted he wouldn't usually want a 6-foot-6, 300-pounder in pass coverage.

But this play wasn't one to get picky about.

``Dom has to face the facts,'' Raybon said. ``I made the play and we're all going home happy.''

The win kept the Panthers' (6-6) playoff hopes alive. A loss, quarterback Kerry Collins admitted, ``would have erased all our chances.''

St. Louis (2-10) dropped its eighth straight, but was in the game to the finish.

The Panthers fell behind 7-0 early in the second quarter when defensive end Kevin Carter blew past Carolina's offensive line and forced a fumble by Collins. Leslie O'Neal recovered it and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown.

The Rams' lead lasted 74 seconds, however. The Panthers tied it on a 59-yard pass from Collins to Rocket Ismail, who zipped open in the middle of the field and had an easy path to the end zone.

It was a field-goal contest after that -- three by Carolina's John Kasay (including a 53-yarder) and one by Jeff Wilkins.

The six-point lead was crucial. It meant St. Louis took possession with 4:11 left knowing it had to have a touchdown and an extra point to win. A field goal was worthless.

The Panthers would have preferred a simple ending, but what hasn't been dramatic about their season?

With Rypien substituting for injured Tony Banks, the Rams drove downfield seeking a game-winning score. Carolina couldn't stop them because they couldn't stop tight end Ernie Conwell.

Conwell got open in the middle of the zone coverage for a 15-yard catch, then put a nifty move on linebacker Sam Mills and broke free for a 34-yarder.

The play began at the 37 and Conwell's catch gave the Rams a first-and-goal at the 3.

But he almost made it all the way.

``I almost feel guilty for not getting in the end zone,'' he admitted.

He didn't because rookie safety Mike Minter chased him down and made a saving tackle that got overshadowed by the goal-line stand.

But there were whispers in the Carolina locker room that Minter had saved the day just as surely as had Raybon.

``I thought he was going to get in,'' said Minter. ``I was like, `Gee, this is it.' And I felt every bit of that tackle.''

That's because Conwell weights 265 pounds, 77 more than Minter.

``It felt like I was tackling a bull,'' said Minter.

The tackle didn't lessen the weight of the pressure on the Panthers, however. Two minutes remained and the Rams had four plays to gain 3 yards.

Capers watched nervously.

``At a time like that, you're just balling your fits and gritting your teeth,'' he said.

On first-and-goal, the Rams tried a pass, but Rypien's throw to backup tight end Aaron Laing was incomplete.

The next two plays were running attempts. Jerald Moore, the replacement for recently released Lawrence Phillips, gained 1 yard on each to get the ball to the 1.

The third-down tackle was made by defensive end Shawn King, who grabbed Moore by the legs and yanked him down.

King sprung from the ground and celebrated.

``I was fired up because some of their linemen had given me grief earlier in the game,'' King said. `` . . . I told them I'd get the last word and I guess I did.''

Well, maybe next-to-last because the fourth-and-goal play that would determine the outcome was to come.

It started as a chess match between coaches. The Rams initially had a three-wide receiver formation on the field, but then substituded into a double-tight end, two-running backs set.

That forced the Panthers to substitute, too -- into their ``Rhino'' unit. It also gave defensive coordinator Vic Fangio a clue that the Rams might be about to run a pass play Carolina had worked on in practice.

Fangio's hunch was right.

Rypien rolled to his right and threw back toward Laing in the center of the end zone.

``I was getting ready to enjoy my Sunday evening,'' said Rypien, who thought it was a sure touchdown.

But Rypien had to throw off-balance and on the run because he was being chased hard by linebacker Lamar Lathon.

Raybon said he saw Laing open and knew Lathon was rushing Rypien, so he decided to help in defending the pass.

Raybon raised his arm and smacked the ball away, keeping it from getting to Laing and preventing the score.

Finally, Capers could stop gritting his teeth and start smiling.

``I couldn't be happier with this win today,'' Capers said. ``I can't say enough about that goal-line stand and the way our team hung together. I think it represents what this team is all about.''

As reporters crowded around Raybon, King couldn't resist putting a hole in the heroic version of events Raybon was giving.

``Israel,'' King said, ``you know you just got blocked into the end zone.''

Raybon didn't flinch.

``Shawn,'' he said, ``you're just jealous.''

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