By Rams Nation's Don Ackerman
Though the Panthers last played the Rams on December 23rd, 2001 (I was there and it was a Rams blowout before the Panthers mounted a very impressive comeback to fall short 38-32), the Panthers used to see the Rams twice a year and both teams were part of the NFC West. But two years ago is an eternity away and both teams are remade in their 2003 versions. The Rams are now a defensively-minded team and Carolina is a much more balanced team. This game will be determined by who executes better.
The Panthers last Saturday played a perfect game. Carolina had no turnovers, no penalties, Davis had a running back with over 100 yards rushing, two receivers with over 100 yards rushing, a kicker with no misses, and a quarterback who did not look like he was playing in his first NFL playoff game. The biggest question is: Can they do it again?
For the Rams, their last outing was far less impressive. The Lions out-everything'ed the Rams in the second half of a 20-30 Rams loss. The off-week (earned by having the second best record in the NFC) gives the Rams one week to stew on the loss and remind themselves that if you lose focus, you lose the game.
So what will we see Sunday? I expect the Rams to be properly motivated after losing homefield with the Detroit loss. The "Greatest Show on Turf" is no more. Marc Bulger now leads the Rams offense. Their 3rd down threat Ricky Proehl is now in Carolina. Look for Dane Looker and Mike Furrey to make clutch plays. But the Rams are really dangerous on defense. Led by hard-hitters Aeneas Williams and Adam Archuleta, these guys can win a game for ya (Ask Baltimore). I'm looking for the Rams to play a balanced game with a mix of run and pass. The Rams' worst losses occur when coach Mike Martz falls in love with the passing game. If the Rams are balanced, they win games. On offense, Marshall Faulk needs touches if he's not getting any yards. Faulk can break a long run on any play and persistance pays off with Marshall. On D, look for the Rams to try and shut down the running back, a Rams weakness in 2003. Also, expect the Rams to try and rattle Panthers QB Jake Del Homme.
The Panthers are a balanced team. Dangerous wide receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad are backed up by Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis. Look for the Panthers to establish the run and try to complete the long-ball as they did against Dallas. On defense, look for the Panthers to blitz. The Rams QBs have consistentl performed poorly against the blitz. The Rams QBs like to hold onto the ball and this year you have seen sacks, fumbles, and even safeties. The Panthers will know that and will be looking for post-Christmas gifts.
I expect the Rams to be focused and score on offense. If Del Homme turns over the ball, look for a high Rams score. If so, I could easily see 40 points on the board. If the Panthers limit their turnovers, I expect a closer game with the Rams winning 31-21.
Don, the Rams Nation columnist can be contacted at Don@RamsNation.org.