NFL: Panthers 26, Chargers 24
By Bernie Wilson
SAN DIEGO ó Their eyes met ó the tight end under the goal posts and the quarterback who was moving up in the pocket, trying to keep the play alive.
Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers? Oh no, try Jake Delhomme and Dante Rosario of the Carolina Panthers.
Delhomme came back from an elbow injury with the kind of impact the San Diego Chargers won’t soon forget, throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass to Rosario as time expired to lift the underdog Carolina Panthers to a shocking 26-24 win Sunday.
When he saw the ball in Rosario’s hands, Delhomme felt as if he were replicating one of the most famous celebration scenes in sports history.
“I didn’t know what to do. I think I ran around like Jim Valvano,” he said, referring to the late North Carolina State basketball coach’s reaction to the Wolfpack’s upset of Houston in the 1983 national championship game.
“I started to run to go jump on him, and I’m just kind of in awe,” Delhomme said. “Then you hear the ref blowing the whistle, so I’m like, ‘Oh, did something happen?’ But it was for the PAT. … It was just elation.”
It was an incredible finish to a game that swung wildly with a big defensive play by each team in the second half. For Delhomme, it was a return after missing the final 13 games of 2007 with an elbow injury that required reconstructive surgery.
“Oh man, I don’t know how to put in words. Let’s be honest,” said Delhomme, who led Carolina to the Super Bowl following the 2003 season, his first as a starter. “Games like this, they don’t happen often. This ranks for me, I promise you.”
After Rivers rallied San Diego with his third TD pass, Delhomme ran the 2-minute drill to perfection, moving the Panthers from their 32-yard line to the San Diego 14. Carolina called its final timeout with 2 seconds left.
The winning play is known as 74 Rocket ó as in, “rocket, let’s go,” Delhomme explained. Five receivers flooded into the end zone. Wanting to move a safety and hit a receiver on a seam, Delhomme pump-faked, then stepped up in the pocket.
“I was just kind of standing there like it was kind of going in slow motion, just looking, looking, looking,” he said. “I’m sure I had great protection, obviously. Then Dante and I kind of caught eyes; he was under the goal posts and I could see his eyes, and I just tried to throw it. He made an unbelievable play.”
Chargers inside linebacker Matt Wilhelm got a hand on the ball “and it just tipped right back into my hand,” Rosario said.
Carolina coach John Fox raised his arms and clenched his fists as the offensive players mobbed each other between the goal posts and the stands.
John Kasay, who had four field goals, added the extra point to set the final score.
“It’s great to have Jake back and you can tell that our offense is operating. Guys want to follow him,” Rosario said.
“We just have to get a sack,” Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips said. “I don’t want to have to rely on the defensive backs.”
The Chargers had lost only one of their previous 16 home regular-season games.
“We watched film on them and know what they would do but they also did a lot of things that we didn’t expect,” said Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, who’s playing with two torn ligaments in his left knee.
Delhomme was 8-of-11 for 68 yards on the final drive and finished the afternoon 23-of-41 for 247 yards.
The Chargers, picked by many to reach the Super Bowl, seemed to have this one wrapped up after Rivers threw a 5-yard scoring pass to Vincent Jackson with 2:27 left.
That came six plays after first-round draft pick Antoine Cason slammed receiver D.J. Hackett to the turf after a catch, forcing the ball to pop out. Phillips recovered at the Carolina 28 with 4:56 to play.
Carolina had a momentum-swinging defensive play, too, late in the third quarter with San Diego leading 10-9.
Gates caught a pass that would have given San Diego a first down at the 31. But safety Chris Harris ripped the ball out of the Pro Bowl tight end’s hands as he was going down and it popped straight to cornerback Chris Gamble, who ran it into the end zone.
Chargers coach Norv Turner challenged, but the play was upheld, costing San Diego a timeout.
After a punt by San Diego’s Mike Scifres went only 32 yards, the Panthers jumped ahead 19-10 on Kasay’s fourth field goal, from 49 yards.
The Chargers came right back with Gates catching a 24-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to pull to 19-17 with 6:45 to play.
NOTES: LaDainian Tomlinson said he jammed a toe on the Chargers’ final drive. The two-time defending NFL rushing champion had 97 yards on 21 carries. … Panthers WR Steve Smith served the first of a two-game, team-imposed suspension for breaking CB Ken Lucas’ nose with a sucker punch during training camp.