The "Big Game" label follows St. Louis Rams receiver Torry Holt wherever he goes.

The tag, which can even be found on his Big Game Sportswear T-shirts, has accompanied Holt from his hometown of Gibsonville to his college town of Raleigh to his adopted NFL home on the banks of the Mississippi.It will follow Holt back to North Carolina on Sunday (4:15, WGHP-8), when he'll play in what can safely be described as a very big game against the Carolina Panthers.

When Holt's Rams last met the Panthers, it was all about playoff survival. It was the Panthers who survived in double-overtime in an NFC divisional playoff game.

This time, it's about making the playoffs, still more of a long-shot proposition for Carolina (5-7) than for St. Louis (6-6). Holt has lined up about 25 tickets for friends and family.

"Last year is done with," said Holt, who could clear 1,000 receiving yards for the fifth consecutive season Sunday. "That's behind us. This is a new year. Unfortunately, it's to the point where we need every game we have left on the schedule, and Carolina happens to be left on the schedule."

About last year. It's not as if Holt has forgotten.

Panthers cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. certainly hasn't. He pops a tape of that Jan. 10 game into his VCR frequently. For Manning, one particular play is worth a second, third ... 10th look.

The first overtime was winding down at the Edward Jones Dome, and the Rams had driven inside the Panthers' 40-yard line, nearing Jeff Wilkins' field-goal range.

Quarterback Marc Bulger tried to hit Holt on a slant pattern. Manning, then a rookie, jumped the route and snagged a one-handed interception.

A few plays later, as the second overtime got under way, Carolina's Steve Smith took a pass from Jake Delhomme 69 yards, giving the Panthers a 29-23 victory.

"It was a fantasy," Manning said. "You don't even dream of making a play that big. The game was basically lost. They were going to kick a field goal the next play. It was total pandemonium."

Though Holt had only two catches for 21 yards that day, he had already completed a career season: 117 catches, 1,696 yards and 12 touchdowns. Clearly, the Rams knew what they were doing when they struck a seven-year, $40 million deal with Holt before the '03 season.

Holt, who established his Big Game reputation at Eastern Guilford High School and N.C. State before St. Louis, continues to be one of the NFL's best deep threats.

And, while Holt is off last year's statistical pace, he and teammate Isaac Bruce remain arguably the league's best wide receiver duo, with a combined 137 catches for 1,979 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.

"It's nice to have the receivers that we do," coach Mike Martz said. "Protection will always be an issue when you have receivers like that. You have to make sure you can block them. Otherwise, it doesn't make any difference."

That could be an issue Sunday for the Rams, who rank near the top of the league in total offense but near the bottom in sacks allowed.

With Bulger ailing, they'll turn to NFL veteran Chris Chandler at quarterback. For the record, Chandler is older than Rodney Peete. And the Rams' top two running backs, Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson, are questionable because of knee injuries.

That, of course, is nothing compared with the Panthers' lineup turnover since the January playoff meeting. Half of Carolina's starters have changed.

"Even though their personnel is different, the names are different on the back of their jerseys," Holt said, "their scheme and their heart and their fight and will to compete isn't any different."

The Rams need a different result this go-round. A big game from Big Game sure would help.

\ Contact Jeff Carlton at 373-7065 or

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