The Carolina Panthers delivered a jawdropping finish to a topsy-turvy game for both them and the San Diego Chargers. Time expired as Jake Delhomme pump-faked, and then “threaded the needle” so to speak, as he fired a razor-sharp pass through two defenders to tight end Dante Rosario, for a startling 26-24 victory for the visiting Panthers.
It was an up and down contest at Qualcomm Stadium, on a beautiful San Diego afternoon. The Panthers held their own against the perennial AFC favorite Chargers, in a game that most gave them no chance to win, let alone dominate.
The Chargers and the Panthers both had a relatively staid first quarter, with no points on the board for either team. Carolina was the first to contribute, with a John Kasay field goal early in the second quarter. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers then hit receiver Chris Chambers in the endzone with a 44 yard pass roughly three minutes later, and the quarter ended with two more Kasay field goals, giving the Panthers a 9-7 lead going into halftime.
The Chargers took their second lead of the game late in the third quarter, with their own Nate Kaeding kicking a twenty-seven yard field goal. San Diego’s lead did not last long, as safety Chris Harris knocked the ball loose from Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and right into the hands of Carolina corner Chris Gamble. Gamble returned the ball thirty-one yards for the score, and Carolina was on top again.
Panthers kicker Kasay delivered his fourth field goal of the game five minutes into the fourth quarter, giving Carolina a nine point lead over the Super Bowl-projected Chargers; however Gates redeemed his fumble with a twenty-four yard touchdown reception from Rivers shortly thereafter, cutting the Panthers’ lead to two.
Carolina receiver D.J. Hackett fumbled a catch in the next drive, giving San Diego great field position at Carolina’s own twenty-eight with five minutes left in the quarter. The Chargers were able to capitalize on the turnover, with Rivers hitting Vincent Jackson for a five yard touchdown pass with a little over two minutes to go.
This is when the Panthers offense put it into overdrive, and Jake Delhomme was able to dispel the many misgivings about his surgically-repaired elbow. The Cajun quarterback completed eight of eleven passes for sixty-eight yards, with some athletic catches from Muhsin Muhammad, Dante Rosario and Dwayne Jarrett, to charge them down the field. Time appeared to be running out for Carolina, though; with two seconds left in the game, Delhomme had time for only one more play. He snatched an early, high snap out of the air, pump-faked to the right, and most improbably, found tight end Rosario under the goalposts. The ball was slightly tipped, and went right into the second year pro’s hands, through two defenders.
It was quite a showing for the formerly 7-9 Panthers; the Chargers played well as always, but Carolina displayed tremendous tenacity, and just would not give up… and all without Steve Smith.