- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

ST. LOUIS With 4:50 to go in yesterday's NFC Championship game at the Trans World Dome, the heavily favored St. Louis Rams were in big trouble.

The third-most productive offense in NFL history hadn't reached the end zone. St. Louis, trailing by a point, faced a third-and-4 at the Tampa Bay 30-yard line. If the Rams didn't pick up the first down, the go-ahead field goal was far from a sure thing. Kicker Jeff Wilkins, hampered by tendinitis, already had missed a 44-yarder.

The play was supposed to be a short toss to halfback Marshall Faulk, but quarterback Kurt Warner had talked to backup wideout Ricky Proehl during the timeout that preceded the play about turning his down-and-out route into a fade if a safety blitzed.

Free safety Damien Robinson blitzed so Proehl ran to the end zone, outjumped Brian Kelly and then held onto the ball as the reserve cornerback tried to smack it from his hands. The dramatic touchdown was the difference as the Rams beat the Buccaneers 11-6 to advance to Super Bowl XXXIV against AFC champion Tennessee on Sunday in Atlanta.

"Their corners were squatting, expecting us to run a slant," said Proehl, who played more yesterday because starter Torry Holt and third receiver Az-Zahir Hakim were ailing. "The ball was underthrown a little bit so I tried to shield [Kelly] off, keeping my body between him and the ball. When I went up, I had it, but when I came down, he got his hand in there. I was able to hold onto it by pinning it against my side. I was able to get control and get two feet in [bounds]."

Said Rams coach Dick Vermeil, "We were going for the first down, but when Kurt saw the one-on-one coverage on Ricky, he went for the touchdown. I just thought we had better complete it because our field goal situation isn't as healthy as you would like it to be. You don't want to dump a game in a kicker's lap if you don't have to."

The Rams, who beat the Bucs 9-0 in the NFC Championship game in January of 1980 to go to their other Super Bowl, won despite the fact that NFL MVP Warner threw a season-high three interceptions and that Faulk who set an NFL record with 2,429 yards from scrimmage gained just 49 yards.

"We were sort of trapped into playing their kind of game between our turnovers and their stopping our running game," Vermeil said. "Their [defensive] scheme is different. You don't see the slanting, stunting scheme with quick people very often. It really bothered us. I feel fortunate to have won the game."

The Bucs, who came so close to their first Super Bowl despite just 203 yards and two field goals, weren't sore losers.

"There's no reason for us to be dejected and tearing up this locker room," said Bucs tackle Warren Sapp, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. "We did exactly what we felt we could do which was turn this thing into a war and give ourselves a chance to win in the fourth quarter. We brought them into our zone … into misery. They just made the play to win the game. Warner put the ball exactly where he needed to put it and Proehl went up and made the play."

The Rams could have been in even more dire straits before Proehl's big play if rookie cornerback Dre Bly hadn't ended Tampa's previous series by intercepting rookie quarterback Shaun King's pass for halfback Warrick Dunn at the St. Louis 44. If Tampa, which had managed just 161 yards, had just handed the ball off on third-and-11 and then punted, the Rams would have been pinned deep in their own territory. Only two of their previous nine drives had gone more than 34 yards, making a score a lot more problematic.

"Dre's a playmaker," Vermeil said. "I really liked him in college. He had that instinct that sometimes you can't coach."

Vermeil has guided his Rams from a 4-12 record in 1998 to the brink of their first championship since 1951. But one of St. Louis' three defeats came at Tennessee, 24-21 on Oct. 31. The Titans jumped ahead 21-0 in the first quarter turning two Warner fumbles into quick touchdowns and then survived a Rams' comeback which ended when Wilkins missed a last-second 38-yarder that would have forced overtime.

"I don't want anybody to think that we're celebrating tonight because it's not over," said Vermeil, who coached Philadelphia to Super Bowl XV but lost to Oakland, 27-10. "One of the biggest mistakes we made [with the Eagles] is we almost gave the impression to our city and to ourselves that we had already achieved our goal by winning the NFC Championship. I'm not letting that happen again. We have a lot of respect for [the Titans], but we went away from that ballgame thinking we beat ourselves. It should be a heck of a game."

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