CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Unthinkable two months ago, the Carolina Panthers are officially in the playoff hunt.
Playing nearly as well as they did during their run to the Super Bowl last season, Carolina pulled into the thick of the NFC wild-card hunt with a 20-7 victory over St. Louis on Sunday.
It was the fifth consecutive win for the Panthers (6-7) and moved them into a tie for the final NFC wild-card berth - unimaginable after Carolina opened 1-7 and lost starter after starter to season-ending injuries.
Playing behind a defense that set a franchise record with six interceptions, the Panthers got touchdowns from Muhsin Muhammad and Nick Goings and two field goals from John Kasay in a rematch of January's thrilling NFC divisional playoff.
But this one wasn't nearly as dramatic as Carolina's 29-23 win in double overtime.
But don't forget, the teams are totally different than they were in January.
For starters, 10 of Carolina's 22 regulars from that game are either no longer with the Panthers or out with injuries.
And St. Louis (6-7) was without star running back Marshall Faulk, and was forced to use 39-year-old Chris Chandler at quarterback because Marc Bulger is hurt.
Still, some things looked just the same.
Ricky Manning Jr. intercepted Chandler on the Rams' first series to set up Carolina's first touchdown. It was Manning who set up Carolina's playoff victory, as well, when he ended a Rams drive by wrestling the ball away from Torry Holt to give the Panthers possession for their winning drive.
But Manning also made a mistake following his second interception. Instead of stepping out of bounds as the defenders closed in on him, he fought for every last inch of his 16-yard return and fumbled the ball back to the Rams on their 28-yard line late in the third quarter.
It was one of the few mistakes Carolina made in a game dominated by its defense.
Dan Morgan, back from a three-game absence with a concussion, had two interceptions to join Manning for the team lead, and Will Witherspoon and rookie Chris Gamble each added a pick.
Making his first start in over a year, Chandler certainly wasn't crisp. But the 17-year veteran still made a handful of athletic plays, including one that was negated for offensive holding but would have ranked among his niftier touchdown passes.
He escaped from the collapsing pocket, eluded several defenders and zipped a pass to Isaac Bruce, who zigzagged into the end zone for what would have been a 52-yard touchdown.
The one that did count was his 75-yard TD pass to Holt at the end of the first quarter, when Chandler converted on third-and-9.
Chandler finished 16-for-29 for 243 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions.
Meanwhile, Muhammad, who caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme in the first quarter, scored for a career-best 11th time this season.
And Goings, Carolina's sixth-string running back before injuries forced him into a starting role, ran for 108 yards and a 1-yard TD plunge. He now has run for 100 yards or more in all four of his starts - tying the mark Stephen Davis set last season.
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