ST. LOUIS - Stand-in quarterback Steve Beuerlein kept the Carolina Panthers on their playoff track, thanks to another second-half shutout by their defense.
Beuerlein directed two scoring drives in the third quarter and was 6-for-7 for 55 yards. The Panthers' defense did the rest in a 20-10 victory Sunday over the St. Louis Rams, getting five of its six sacks in the second half.
"I'm grateful to our best friend, a great defense," said Beuerlein, who started in place of the injured Kerry Collins. "They kept us in the game. Fortunately, we didn't put ourselves in too big of a hole."
The Panthers, who outscored St. Louis 17-0 in the second half, have allowed four second-half touchdowns all year. The Rams had 243 yards total offense, 70 in the second half.
"With the veterans on this team, we are able to make some adjustments and not get fooled on the same things twice in most cases," veteran linebacker Sam Mills said.
"We weren't able to get anything going in the second half," Rams rookie quarterback Tony Banks said. "We didn't make the plays when we had to - especially me."
Anthony Johnson had 123 yards on 27 carries and a 7-yard touchdown run in the third quarter for the Panthers (7-4), who equaled their victory total from their inaugural season and moved above .500 as a franchise (14-13) for the first time.
All but one of the Panthers' seven victories are against NFC West teams, including a sweep of the Rams (3-8).
Wide receiver Willie Green said the Rams' improbable 59-16 victory over Atlanta last week probably worked in the Panthers' favor.
"That's a plus for us because you hope they left everything on the field," Green said. "Our high outlasted theirs'. It's the sign of a veteran team going up against a younger team."
With Collins nursing an injured right shoulder suffered in last week's victory over the New York Giants, Beuerlein got his first start since Game 4. He was rusty at first, going 1-for-7 for 6 yards in the first quarter and 4-for-14 in the first half for 48 yards while being sacked four times.
The Panthers squandered favorable field positions in the first half, starting from their own 49, 48, 40 and 35 and producing only three points. The third quarter was a different story, though.
Starting from the 46 on their first possession, the Panthers tied the game at 10 on a 9-yard pass from Beuerlein to Wesley Walls. Rams safety Keith Lyle separated Walls from the ball with a huge hit after Walls' jumping catch. One official ruled it an incomplete pass, but Walls' feet had already touched down, and after a long discussion the score stood with 10:10 left in the third.
"I saw the guy blowing it off at first and I tried to yell, but I didn't have any breath," Walls said. "The guy knocked it out of me. I finally caught my breath and I went over and told them I had possession.
"They started talking about it and came out with the right call."
Rams coach Rich Brooks didn't think so.
"I don't think he had control of the ball with both feet on the ground," Brooks said. "I think that was a pivotal play. We didn't handle it as well as we should."
Carolina took the lead on Johnson's 7-yard run with 1:31 left in the quarter and tacked on a 34-yard field goal by John Kasay with 2:43 to go.
Beuerlein finished 13-for-28 for 130 yards.
Banks had an effective first half, going 8-for-16 for 108 yards and a touchdown, an 11-yarder to rookie Lawrence Phillips. But in the second half, Banks was 6-for-17 for 52 yards.
A questionable call cost Banks a 50-yard completion in the third quarter. Isaac Bruce was ruled out of bounds midway through the period, although replays showed he had both feet in on a play that would have taken the Rams to the Panthers 14 and they ended up punting.
"Two feet - I guess that's all you need in the NFL," Bruce said. "They just didn't give it to me."
After Chip Lohmiller and Kasay exchanged field goals in the second quarter, the Rams took the lead as Phillips caught an 11-yard pass from Banks for his first career NFL touchdown reception. Phillips had caught only five passes all year for a 2.8-yard average and has been out of the lineup in most passing situations.
The Rams missed a chance to add to the lead after rookie Chuck Osborne sacked Beuerlein and forced a fumble that Leslie O'Neal recovered at the Carolina 27 with 1:21 to go in the half. Lohmiller was wide left on a 45-yard attempt to end a string of 10 in a row.
Phillips had 56 yards on 14 carries, but sat out most of the second half with a bruised left knee.