- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2002

ST. LOUIS Start polishing the Lombardi Trophy. The St. Louis Rams want it back.
The Rams advanced to the NFC Championship game for the second time in three years with a dominating 45-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers last night at the Dome at America's Center. St. Louis (15-2) plays host to the Philadelphia Eagles (13-5) on Sunday, with the winner advancing to Super Bowl XXXVI on Feb.3.
"I think we're a better team than '99," Rams quarterback Kurt Warner said of the Super Bowl XXXIV champions. "We're matured. We're more solid in every phase."
Philadelphia soon will discover the same problem Green Bay (13-5) encountered in a deafening dome of 66,338 zealots St. Louis' third-rated defense is seemingly as good as its top-rated offense. St. Louis scored on three of Brett Favre's six interceptions, with Green Bay's eight turnovers leading to 35 points. The Rams led 21-7 early in the second quarter despite gaining only two first downs. Fans started singing "goodbye" to the Packers at the end of the third quarter. After all, the game was really over by halftime.
"The defense felt like it was called out by the national media," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "They said it would be some kind of shootout. We feel good about our chances of shutting down anyone who comes in here."
The expected passing duel between Favre and Warner never materialized. The first meeting between the two Super Bowl-winning passers saw Favre's mistakes shackle any possibility for a Packers comeback, while Warner paced the NFL's top-ranked passing offense, which was regularly set up by the defense.
Both quarterbacks were overshadowed by Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams, who scored an NFL playoff record two touchdowns on 29- and 32-yard interception returns. He also had a 71-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown that was later turned into a 2-yard return by replay officials.
"Tipped balls come when you play aggressive defense," Williams said.
Favre's six interceptions included two that bounced off Packers receivers, but the Rams also dropped two. Favre finished 26 of 44 for 281 yards and two touchdowns, but the turnovers persistently stymied Green Bay.
"I don't know if it was more their pass rush or their hands," Favre said. "It's the most tipped balls I've ever seen."
Said Martz: "I don't know if I've ever seen a defense perform like this. It was remarkable."
The Rams offensive numbers weren't gaudy. In fact, Green Bay outgained St. Louis 383-292 overall. However, the Packers' turnovers let the Rams offense cruise. Despite a 35-point lead, St. Louis passed for first downs in the fourth quarter to keep their defense off the field. Martz said the Rams running game wasn't good enough to continue drives, so he passed to keep the ball rather than let the defense further embarrass the Packers.
"The defense outscored the Packers," Warner said.
Warner completed 18 of 30 for 216 yards with two touchdowns and one interception despite early back spasms, which have bothered him for two weeks, and a vicious blindside hit midway through the fourth quarter. After he was silenced recently by a throat injury and forced to miss a practice because of the flu, Warner welcomed a chance for a minor role. After all, there will be chances to outplay Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and maybe earn another Super Bowl MVP award.
"It is a great luxury when you don't have to make big plays," Warner said. "It was nice just to get off the field and watch our defense play."
Favre's first mistake gave St. Louis a 7-0 lead. Williams picked off the underthrown slant, intended for receiver Bill Schroeder, for a 29-yard touchdown with 9:11 left in the first quarter. However, Warner was intercepted by Packers safety Darren Sharper, setting up Freeman's 22-yard touchdown reception to tie the game nearly seven minutes later.
A 38-yard run by Marshall Faulk awakened a Rams offense that didn't gain a first down in their first two possessions. Receiver Torry Holt's 4-yard touchdown catch made it 14-7 one snap into the second quarter. Safety Kim Herring's 45-yard interception return set up fullback James Hodgins' 4-yard touchdown run for a 21-7 lead with 12:36 remaining in the first half.
St. Louis' defense ended Green Bay's opening second-half drive when Williams stripped the ball from Packers receiver Antonio Freeman. Williams' return for a touchdown was overturned, but the Rams used a 50-yard reception by Holt to set up Faulk's 7-yard touchdown run for a 31-10 lead with 9:44 remaining in the third quarter. Rams linebacker Tommy Polley scored on a 34-yard interception less than two minutes later. Williams capped the rout with a 32-yard interception for a touchdown with 7:50 remaining.

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