American Football: Smith late show crushes Rams

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The Independent Online

In one of the most thrilling finishes in NFL history, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, Jake Delhomme, found Steve Smith with a 69-yard touchdown pass in double overtime as the Panthers upset the St Louis Rams 29-23 in their NFC divisional play-off here on Saturday.

"We've been in so many [close games] and we just believe we can get it done in some kind of way," Delhomme said. "I think the biggest thing is we stayed calm. Our guys don't take a deep breath and hope."

In a thrilling match at the Edward Jones Dome, the Panthers opened up an 11-point lead with just under 10 minutes remaining, only for the heavily favoured Rams to hit back in dramatic fashion to force the game into overtime.

St Louis moved to within three points of Carolina when Dane Looker scored a two-point conversion, after the running back Marshall Faulk had gone over, to make the score 23-20. The Rams then recovered the ball from their subsequent onside kick and set up Jeff Wilkins to tie the game with a field goal as time expired.

The Panthers won the toss to start the first overtime period and thought they had won the game with a field goal on their first drive. John Kasay put the ball between the posts from 40 yards, but a penalty cancelled the play and forced the Panthers back five yards. Kasay hooked his next attempt wide to concede possession to St Louis, who drove into the Panthers territory - only for Jeff Wilkins' 53-yard field goal attempt to fall short.

Wilkins appeared likely to get another chance to win the match late into the first overtime period when the Rams reached the Panthers 38 yard line, but on first down, the quarterback, Marc Bulger, was intercepted by Richard Manning to give the ball back to Delhomme, who this time made possession count. At third and 14 on his own 31 yard line, the quarterback picked out Smith, who raced untouched into the endzone to clinch the dramatic victory.

Carolina will meet the Philadelphia Eagles or the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game next Sunday.

Also on Saturday, the New England Patriots beat the Tennessee Titans 17-14 in the AFC divisional play-offs.

In freezing conditions, the kicker Adam Vinatieri completed a 46-yard field goal with 4:06 remaining to send his side into the AFC Championship game. With wind chill at -10C, Vinatieri mastered the adverse weather conditions by hooking his field goal just inside the left upright to break the deadlock at 14-14.

The Patriots will be at home to either the Kansas City Chiefs or the Indianapolis Colts next Sunday.