The Carolina Panthers were a joke two months ago, in danger of becoming the answer to a trivia question as the biggest bust following a Super Bowl season. Don't look now, but the...

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers were a joke two months ago, in danger of becoming the answer to a trivia question as the biggest bust following a Super Bowl season.


Don’t look now, but the Panthers are surging. They moved into the thick of the playoff race yesterday with a 20-7 victory over the St. Louis Rams.


Carolina (6-7) has won five straight and has the edge for the final NFC wild-card berth. Carolina is tied with the Rams (6-7) but owns the head-to-head tiebreaker.


“They had us for the buzzards. We were road kill,” Carolina linebacker Mark Fields said. “All of sudden, we are coming back. With the character and the leadership of this team, there is no question about it, this team has some resolve.”


Stuck in a six-game losing streak two months ago and the laughingstock of the league with a 1-7 record, the playoffs were unthinkable. Mounting injuries had 14 players out for the season and no help on the way.


Once the Panthers realized that, they began to turn it around and are suddenly playing almost as well as they did during last year’s Super Bowl run.


Feeding off 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, mainly because 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. St. Louis was without running backs Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson and quarterback Marc Bulger.


But the stakes were just as high, at least for Carolina.


“It’s a playoff game for us every time we go on the field,” cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. said. “This is it for us. The hole we put ourselves in, the only way out of it is to win every game and keep the season going.”


Manning and Dan Morgan, back from a three-game absence with a concussion, each had two interceptions, and Will Witherspoon and rookie Chris Gamble each added a pick.


The Panthers forced seven turnovers in all — Shaun McDonald muffed a punt that Carolina recovered — and used constant pressure on Chris Chandler, the Rams’ 39-year-old quarterback, to prevent him from finding a comfort zone.


“I think (Chandler) got rattled early,” St. Louis coach Mike Martz said. “I think any time you throw some picks in the game, as quarterback, it really is unsettling. At that point, he had a hard time recovering.”