- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

St. Louis is 20-9 the last two seasons, but three of those nine losses have come against New Orleans, including last year's wild-card game. So the NFC West battle between St. Louis and New Orleans has become one of the NFL's most compelling rivalries.
The 10-2 Rams, who are eyeing a return to the Superdome for the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, can clinch their third straight postseason berth with a victory tomorrow over the host Saints (7-5), who will be in their first "Monday Night Football" game in seven years. Beating St. Louis for a fourth time in 13 months would be a big boost for New Orleans, which faces a daunting stretch drive against fellow NFC contenders Tampa Bay, Washington and San Francisco.
Although there's no good time to take on the Rams' league-leading offense, the Saints' defense comes in playing its best of the season. New Orleans limited Carolina to 150 total yards and recorded eight sacks Dec. 2 and then tied a team record with nine sacks while holding Atlanta to 230 yards last week. Saints coach Jim Haslett said his defense just got back to flying to the football.
"We did it a lot early in the season, but we got away from it for a couple of weeks," Haslett said. "It helps when you get a lead because [the defense] can take advantage of what we do best [rush the passer for a NFL-leading 45 sacks]."
But New Orleans won't be fazed if St. Louis jumps to an early lead. The Saints trailed 24-6 at halftime at St. Louis on Oct. 28 but rallied to win 34-31. On the other hand, St. Louis won't be intimidated by being away from home. The Rams are 6-0 on the road. All five teams that have finished perfect on the road since 1970 have won the Super Bowl.
Rams halfback Marshall Faulk could be the key to success tomorrow. The New Orleans native ran for 220 yards in St. Louis' only victory in the recent series. The Rams rushed for a 110 yards in the other three games. But New Orleans must watch the turnovers. The Saints were plus-11 in those three victories. The turnovers were even in the Rams' triumph.
Either way, we're probably not in for another Monday night clunker. The Rams and Saints have combined to average 57 points, 708 total yards and 529 passing yards in their past four matchups, which have been decided by three, three, five and seven points.
Buccaneers-Bears Tampa Bay fans will be keeping their eyes on the thermometer in Chicago. The Bucs are 0-18 when the mercury at game time is below 40 degrees. What's worse for the Bucs' offense is that quarterback Brad Johnson will probably have to keep throwing into the swirling winds of Soldier Field because the once-solid running game has ground to a halt, averaging a mere 80 yards. Scatback Warrick Dunn has been hemmed in for a paltry 2.7 yards per carry. The Bears (9-3) rank third against the run, just 28th against the pass.
However, Tampa Bay (7-5) has won three straight games thanks to a revived defense that has produced 13 takeaways the past five weeks. The Bears have lost the ball only 21 times this year, in part because their offense is so conservative. Chicago has allowed an NFL-low 12 sacks but has converted just one of 42 times on third-and-10 or longer. The Bears have made just 12 of their past 53 third downs overall (22.6 percent) and have scored just one touchdown in each of their past three games.
Chicago, which can clinch its first playoff spot in seven years with a victory, won 27-24 in Tampa on Nov. 18. The Bears haven't swept the Bucs since 1995.
Dolphins-49ers
When Dan Marino and Joe Montana were quarterbacking these teams, they met only twice in 1983 and the next year in the Super Bowl. After Steve Young replaced Montana, he and Marino dueled just once. When AFC East leader Miami (9-3) and San Francisco (9-3) meet today for the first time since 1995, the quarterbacks will be Jay Fiedler and Jeff Garcia, neither of whom became an NFL starter before his fifth pro season.
Fiedler has been crucial to the Dolphins' recent turnover turnaround. Miami was minus-14 after nine games with Fiedler having committed 18 giveaways. But Fiedler was flawless the past three games (while completing 64 percent of his passes for 629 yards and seven touchdowns) and the Dolphins were plus-7.
Miami's 41-6 rout of Indianapolis last Monday was its most lopsided victory in six years, while San Francisco is coming off its most disappointing day since the 1998 playoffs, a 27-14 loss at St. Louis. The Niners' second-ranked offense was held to season lows in points and yards (220) by the Rams and now faces the Dolphins' fifth-rated defense.
"We've come too far to allow one game to be the breakdown of the rest of the season," said Garcia, who completed just 13 of 36 passes for 146 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns. "We're going to come back."

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