Former Pro Bowler gets first big start in years

The league's second-oldest quarterback will become its latest new starter Sunday when 17-year veteran Chris Chandler gets the nod for the St. Louis Rams in place of injured Marc Bulger in a key NFC contest against the Carolina Panthers.

Chandler, 39, will be the 53rd different starter employed by NFL teams in 2004. Just 17 of the 32 franchises have used the same starting quarterback every week. Four teams have had three or more starters this season. Chicago has used four.

For much-traveled Chandler, playing with a league-record seventh franchise, every start at this point in his career is both cherished and challenging. The game will mark his 151st regular-season start and, with Bulger likely to return quickly from a shoulder sprain suffered early in Sunday's victory over San Francisco, there are no assurances Chandler will get many more chances to open a game.

"I'm getting close to that time, so every time I go out there, I just try to have some fun," said Chandler, who completed 18 of 27 passes for 216 yards in Sunday's relief stint. "I know there aren't a lot of [starting opportunities] left for me. You learn to appreciate it and to make the most of them."

St. Louis certainly needs Chandler, who is in his second stint with the franchise, to make the most of Sunday's game. Compliments of the Seattle Seahawks' late-game meltdown Monday night, the Rams, despite being just 6-6, are tied for the league again in the weak NFC West. And because the Rams defeated Seattle twice in divisional play, they hold the tiebreaker advantage.

Carolina has stormed back from a 1-7 start to win four straight outings, and the resurgent Panthers, despite 14 injuries and the loss of key playmakers on offense, are suddenly just one game behind in the chase for the final NFC wild-card berth.

A two-time Pro Bowl performer, and the man who led the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl berth in 1998, Chandler has played in significant games in the past. However, the Sunday encounter with the Panthers is certainly the biggest start for him in several years. He started 13 games for the Bears over the last two seasons, including six contests in 2003, but none was as crucial as this one.

Still blessed with a strong arm at 39, and possessing uncanny accuracy with the deep ball, Chandler demonstrated some rust early against the 49ers but settled down. He will have the advantage this week, after months of usually running the scout team, of working with the Rams' first-unit offense.

"I almost felt like a rookie again [on Sunday]," Chandler acknowledged. "I was playing too fast. The key is always to slow the game down. It took a few series, but eventually that happened for me, and I played better as the game wore on. I reached the comfort zone I needed, and I'm sure that will come quicker this week."

In 17 seasons, Chandler has completed 2,311 of 3,970 passes for 28,237 yards, with 169 touchdown passes, 139 interceptions and a passer rating of 79.8. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass for seven different franchises, a league record. Chandler has played for Indianapolis (1988-89), Tampa Bay (1990-91), Arizona (1991-93), the Los Angeles Rams (1994), Houston (1995-96), Atlanta (1997-2001) and Chicago (2002-03), and now again with the Rams.

Bulger, who led the NFL in passing yards entering last week's game, had been expected to miss just one week, but he said Wednesday that he is aiming to return Dec. 27 against the Eagles. As an insurance policy, St. Louis signed journeyman Jamie Martin, 34, who has been with the club twice before (1993-96 and 2001-02), and knows the offensive system.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.