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Panthers stun Chargers at end

Delhomme connects with Rosario for a touchdown on the final play of the game for a 26-24 win over highly touted San Diego.

September 08, 2008|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- The game clock was no longer a factor for Jake Delhomme. It had been shut off as the last play of the game unfolded.

The speed of the action also didn't factor in. "Everything seemed like it was in slow motion," the Carolina Panthers quarterback said.

So all Delhomme had to worry about at the end of a wild Sunday afternoon at Qualcomm Stadium, his team trailing the San Diego Chargers by five points, was to find one of five potential receivers who had streaked to the end zone 14 yards away. Enveloped in a cocoon of mind-numbing sound generated by the sellout crowd of 67,115, staring into a mixture of light and shadow, Delhomme pump-faked to spread the defenders, looked down the middle and spotted tight end Dante Rosario near the back of the end zone.

"I thought then we might have a chance," Delhomme said.

He whipped a bullet pass that just eluded Chargers defensive back Eric Weddle, one of three San Diego defenders in the vicinity, and came to a jarring halt in the sure hands of Rosario, who had stretched his 6-4, 250-pound frame to make the catch.

As silence washed over those in the crowd, standing with mouths agape and eyes lowered, Delhomme took off in search of a back to slap, a teammate to embrace.

"I felt like Jim Valvano," he said.

Just like that, the underdog Panthers had pulled out a 26-24 victory on opening day.

Just like that, Carolina, coming off a 7-9 season, and Delhomme, who played in only three games last year because of an elbow injury, had stunned a Chargers squad that went 11-5 last season, reached the AFC championship game and has been projected as a serious Super Bowl contender.

Such grandiose plans have temporarily been put on hold. Instead, San Diego's immediate concern is to prevent Sunday's disappointing start from snowballing into last year's early-season collapse when the Chargers lost three of their first four and had to claw their way back to a postseason berth.

Nobody's pulling out those "Sack Coach Norv Turner" signs. Not yet. Nobody's chanting for the return of previous coach Marty Schottenheimer. Not yet.

But the mood of euphoria surrounding this team has definitely been dampened, replaced by a here-we-go-again attitude.

The Chargers' key performers were all a little bit off Sunday, blunted by a tough Panthers defense. Leading rusher LaDainian Tomlinson had a game-high 97 yards rushing, but didn't get into the end zone. Quarterback Philip Rivers threw three passes for touchdowns, but gained only 217 yards through the air. Tight end Antonio Gates caught a team-high four passes for 61 yards but was guilty of a fumble and suffered a hip bruise.

Perhaps the best news for the Chargers on Sunday was that Pro Bowl linebacker and team captain Shawne Merriman, who has opted to forgo surgery for two torn ligaments in his left knee and remain in the lineup, played most of the game.

He wasn't the terrifying presence he has been on occasion. Merriman had one tackle and assisted on another.

"It's sore," he said of his injured knee afterward, "but, for the most part, its OK."

Carolina had a 9-7 lead at the half, a 44-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to Chris Chambers overcome by three John Kasay field goals, from 44, 33 and 30 yards out.

Nate Kaeding's 27-yard field goal in the third quarter put San Diego back on top.

Carolina regained the lead on an uncharacteristic play by Gates. After catching a Rivers pass and picking up seven yards, the Chargers tight end had the ball stripped from him by defensive back Chris Harris as he fell. The ball never hit the ground, fellow defensive back Chris Gamble picking it off and racing 31 yards to the end zone.

Kasay's 49-yard field goal in the fourth quarter extended the Panthers' lead to 19-10, but Rivers brought his team back with a 24-yard touchdown to pass to Gates and a five-yarder to Vincent Jackson, the latter coming with just under 2 1/2 minutes to play.

That left time for one more Delhomme drive. And one unforgettable throw to Rosario, who led all receivers with seven catches for 96 yards.

"I thought my hand grazed the ball," Weddle said, "but I just mistimed it. I didn't even see the receiver. The bottom line is, I've got to make that play."

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steve.springer@latimes.com

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