NEW ORLEANS The St. Louis Rams are feeling the heavy favorite blues.
While St. Louis was a seven-point choice in its 23-16 victory over Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV, it was the first trip for many Rams with little talk of being the favorite. Instead, pregame hype centered on an old coach returning from retirement for one more title and a quarterback only a few years removed from bagging groceries.
Two years later, the Rams are hefty 14-point favorites over the New England Patriots in Sunday’s Super Bowl XXXVI. The Patriots get to be the sexy underdogs while the Rams are sensing the pressure.
“We’re the big bad wolf. Everybody wants to take us out,” running back Marshall Faulk said yesterday. “In ‘99, we surprised a lot of people. [Now] we keep having all these important games. [Coach] Mike Martz would stand in front of us and say ‘This is an important game’ [all sea[JUMP]son]. We’ve been expected to win. People say we’re supposed to win.”
St. Louis rebounded from last year’s first-round loss to win the NFC by beating Green Bay 45-17 and Philadelphia 29-24 in the playoffs. The Rams knew another early playoff exit would label 1999 as a fluke. After all, the Super Bowl is littered with one-year wonders. “Dynasty” seems better linked to Chinese emperors than NFL powerhouses.
“We don’t think about making marks in history,” Faulk said. “We try to be perfect. We feel very good about our chances.”
The offense finished No. 1 with quarterback Kurt Warner and Faulk finishing one-two, respectively, in NFL Most Valuable Player voting. They combined for 371 yards and three touchdowns against Philadelphia.
But the defensive improvement rising to No. 3 overall after gaining eight new starters and four defensive assistant coaches has the Rams eager to earn another Lombardi Trophy. Indeed, Warner thinks it’s a better team. That’s why it was so important for many Rams to return to the Super Bowl.
“This year may be a little more rewarding because we were really the team that everybody wanted to beat from the get-go,” he said. “To make it back to the Super Bowl [was] very, very rewarding with the way things have played out and everybody expecting us to be on top and wanting to knock us off.”
Already, the Patriots are filling the impatient challenger’s role. New England wants some respect after upsetting Pittsburgh 24-17 for the AFC Championship on Sunday as 10-point underdogs.
“People are going to say what they want to say, and it’s the same thing,” Patriots receiver Troy Brown said. “If we listen to what everybody else says, we might as well just not even show up and just take a loss.”
The Rams won’t be intimidated by the challengers, though. Getting to the Super Bowl has eased some of the pressure.
“You have to play, but don’t have to worry about going home,” Warner said of an early postseason exit. “Everybody is going home after next week. Now you can let it loose. Now that pressure is off.”
Martz seemed bleary-eyed in readying for the season’s biggest game without the normal two-week break. St. Louis arrived just 21 hours after beating Philadelphia and Martz was already analyzing New England. Then again, the Rams beat the Patriots 24-17 on Nov. 18, so the teams aren’t strangers.
“We won’t get much sleep this week,” Martz said. “It’s quite a challenge. [The Patriots] do such a great job of attacking what you do. Obviously, they belong in the Super Bowl. It will be a terrific matchup.”
Players won’t get serious until tomorrow. However, there are plenty of temptations in “The Big Easy” with the infamous French Quarter a short walk away. Martz won’t impose a curfew until later in the week, but delivered an “I trust you” speech during a team meeting like a parent handing their teen-ager the car keys.
“It would be a shame to party too much and not be ready for Sunday,” said defensive end Grant Wistrom. “Most guys have been [in a Super Bowl. We’ll have a little bit of fun.”