ST. LOUIS — You don’t beat the St. Louis Rams as much as you withstand them. Especially in their dome sweet dome, which is warm and windless and wonderful for passing. The Dome at America’s Center would have been a good place for the Wright Brothers to stage their first manned flights if, of course, it had existed back in 19-aught-three.
For the better part of three quarters yesterday, the Philadelphia Eagles did an admirable job of withstanding. They let the Rams score field goals (three) but held them to only one touchdown. They gave Marshall Faulk his yards (he went over 100 yards rushing three plays into the second half) but kept him out of the end zone. With a 17-16 lead and Donovan McNabb on top of his game their chances of turning the Super Bowl into an all-underdog affair seemed, well, fairly decent.
But then the St. Louis offense switched to the gear only it seems to have. Right down the field the Rams went, twice in three series, as if the NFC’s best defense (for my money) wasn’t even there. And when the exhaust from their high-powered engine had cleared, they were on their way to New Orleans with a 29-24 victory.
Destined though the New England Patriots appear to be, it’s hard to imagine them withstanding the Rams any better than the Eagles did. The Patriots are swell in the snow, and they showed they can cope with a quarterback like Kordell Stewart. But they won’t be playing in the snow in the Superdome, and Kurt Warner poses much bigger problems than the erstwhile “Slash.”
The St. Louis defense is no picnic, either. It’s amazing to think this team was giving up 30 points a game last season 58 to the Elvis Grbac-led Chiefs. The Rams have torn their ‘D’ down, built it back up with the likes of Aeneas Williams, Tommy Polley and Adam Archuleta, and are better on that side of the ball than they were two years ago, when they won it all. If Williams’ last two weeks three interceptions, two touchdowns don’t put him in the Hall of Fame, after the career he’s had, nothing will.
All of St. Louis’ prime-time players came through yesterday Williams (with a pick that iced it), Warner (22 of 33, no INTS), Faulk (159 yards rushing), Isaac Bruce (eight receptions, one TD), Grant Wistrom (one sack, plus a big tackle on McNabb when he was on the verge of scrambling for a first down). That’s why they’re stars and why the Rams offense is nigh indefensible. I mean, who exactly are their opponents supposed to focus on? There are simply too many poisons to choose from.
“We were sitting on the bench a lot in the second half [thanks to those two long drives by the offense],” said Williams. “That allowed us [on defense] to refresh ourselves and do some things when we got on the field.”
My buddy Bernie Miklasz, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says he’s working on a piece for Super Bowl week that measures the Rams against the best offenses in pro football history. After their work the last three years, they definitely warrant the comparison. I’m not sure anybody, in any era, had anything on Warner and Co.
Bruce might be the best clutch receiver since Jerry Rice was in his prime. He won Super Bowl XXXIV with a 73-yard TD in the final minutes, and he was “stupendous” yesterday, in Mike Martz’s estimation. “You just watch,” the Rams coach said. “He’ll be a key factor [against the Patriots].”
Faulk is probably the most dangerous all-purpose back since Gale Sayers only more durable. “He just took over the game in stretches,” said Martz. Never more so than at the start of the second half, when Warner put the ball in his belly seven straight times in a drive that led to a field goal. This isn’t something the run-‘n’-gun Rams normally do, but it accomplished its objective: It forced the Eagles to put another defender up near the line and opened the passing lanes.
Then there’s Mr. Chunky Soup, Warner. He’s part Montana, part Marino, and all quarterback right down to the painkilling injection he got before the game to dull the pain in his aching ribs. Martz knew Warner was ready to play because, in warmups, “I noticed that he had what we call ‘the Kurt stare.’ He gets it about four times a year and when he does, he’s at a different level.”
McNabb, who had been magical the previous two weeks, was nearly at that level, but not quite. He’ll be heard from again, though and again and again, probably. He just needs another weapon or two (a deep receiver, perhaps, and an every-down back) to keep defenses from concentrating so much on him.
In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see another Rams-Eagles title game somewhere down the line. Philly is still quite young, and St. Louis certainly isn’t going anywhere. The Rams proved to everyone this year that they’re a special team, worthy successors to the Packers and Broncos of the late ‘90s.
As Warner put it, “We expected to [be in the Super Bowl]. That was our goal. Our guys would have been disappointed had we not made it this far.”
And now “the Greatest Show on Turf” takes its act to the Superdome. The New England Patriots welcome your prayers.