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Ram Tough A quartet of contenders seems capable of winning the Super Bowl, but St. Louis, the unlikeliest of powerhouses, looks like a team of destiny

They were lined up the length of several football fields, their
chilly bones warmed by Super Bowl fever and the anticipation of
getting up close and personal with America's most improbable
sports hero. On the night of Dec. 28, St. Louis Rams quarterback
Kurt Warner saw a throng of 600 fans as he pulled his sport
utility vehicle into a supermarket parking lot in suburban
O'Fallon. The crowd had begun congregating in 35[degree] weather
eight hours earlier. After Warner entered the store, his public
came in from the cold, and he signed his name to boxes of
Warner's Crunch Time cereal. His wife, Brenda, even granted
several autograph requests, prefacing each signature with the
disclaimer, "You realize, this is goofy."

The scene was a stock boy's twisted fantasy come to life. Five
years ago Warner livened up all-night can-stacking sessions at
the Hy-Vee supermarket in Cedar Falls, Iowa, by regaling his
incredulous coworkers with pronouncements of his pro football
dreams. Now Warner, a favorite for league MVP honors, resides on
the NFL's top shelf.

Think about what has gone down since the Denver Broncos won their
second consecutive Super Bowl last January: John Elway and Barry
Sanders retired, Brett Favre and Randall Cunningham regressed,
Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson blew out their knees, and
Warner, an Arena League afterthought, helped revive one of the
league's most stagnant operations. Given his amazing ascent, it's
not surprising that Warner regards his sudden celebrity as
paper-thin. "I keep thinking that this will all wear off, that
I'll die down like a novelty item that has run its course, but it
hasn't stopped," says Warner, who in St. Louis's throwaway 38-31
loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday became only the second
NFL player (Dan Marino was the first) to throw at least 40
touchdown passes in a season. "If anything, things have gotten
more and more crazy."

Just as crazy, nobody predicted that the leading contenders for
the Lombardi Trophy would include the Rams and the Indianapolis
Colts, two teams coming off last-place finishes in 1998, and the
Tennessee Titans, a nomadic franchise that until 1999 was the
definition of mediocrity. Chances are, one of these teams--or the
preseason darlings, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who on Sunday
completed the least imposing 14-2 regular season in league
history with a 24-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals--will bring
home a championship to a city that has never tasted anything
resembling Super Bowl success.

"This spot is ready to blow up," says Jaguars linebacker Kevin
Hardy, referring both to greater Jacksonville and the decked-out
swimming pool area of his east-side estate. Famous around town
for his pool parties, some of which have included hundreds of
guests and lasted several days, Hardy, who this season emerged as
one of the league's dominant defensive players, proudly displayed
amenities such as a one-touch stereo system for a mid-December
visitor. Then Hardy explained the house's unique H shape, which
protects the open-air pool on three sides: "The whole house was
built to provide privacy for the pool area. I've had some great
parties here, and if we win the Super Bowl, we may have to have
one for the whole city."

Until two weeks ago the football gods seemed intent on allowing
Jacksonville to party Hardy. First the Jaguars got a pair of
extra gimmes on their schedule with the placement of the
expansion Cleveland Browns in the AFC Central, and then they
caught breaks when three '99 opponents coming off successful
seasons--the Broncos, the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons and the AFC
runner-up New York Jets--lost star players (Davis, Anderson and
quarterback Vinny Testaverde, respectively) to season-ending
injuries. Jacksonville, like St. Louis, finished the season
without beating a team that ended with a winning record. "Hey,
it's not our fault those guys got hurt," says Jimmy Smith, the
Jaguars' outstanding wideout. "Not to sound cocky, but we think
we're the best team out there, and anything short of winning the
Super Bowl would certainly be disappointing."

But while Jacksonville, which on Sunday secured the AFC's top
seed, remains a favorite to win it all, the Jaguars' aura was
defiled by their stinker of a performance on Dec. 26 against the
Titans in Nashville, a game that coach Tom Coughlin likened to
"getting hit by a train." Jacksonville, which had suffered a
one-point loss to its division rival on Sept. 26, got flattened
41-14, and quarterback Mark Brunell strained the medial
collateral ligament in his left knee. "They look emotionally
tired," one AFC coach said of the Jaguars last week. "They have
incredible talent, but they seem to be buckling."

Now Jacksonville has some physical problems too. On Sunday, with
Brunell watching from the sideline, All-Pro left tackle Tony
Boselli was lost for the playoffs with a torn ACL in his right
knee. Still, the Jaguars enter the Super Bowl chase as the
league's most well-rounded team. Brunell is expected back, and
with an offense loaded with playmakers like Smith, fellow wideout
Keenan McCardell and running back Fred Taylor, and a defense that
ranked first in the league for most of the season, Jacksonville
commands respect around the league.

"It's tough to prepare for them in just one week because of what
[defensive coordinator] Dom Capers does," says Carolina Panthers
tight end Wesley Walls. "The zone blitz is not so much of a new
thing anymore, but he's still really good at scheming and keeping
an offense off balance."

St. Louis can do the same thing to a defense. "The Rams have so
many playmakers," says Walls. "[Wideout] Isaac Bruce is awesome,
and the other receivers complement him so well. Everyone knows
Marshall Faulk can break a run at any time, and Warner is
throwing the ball as well as I've ever seen it thrown. At first
we thought he was just hot, but after 17 weeks, somebody's got to
admit he's pretty darn good. I've seen quarterbacks on some
pretty amazing streaks--Joe Montana, Steve Young, Steve Beuerlein
for us this year--but Kurt Warner's run is right up there."

While skeptics point to St. Louis's weak schedule, it's hard to
overlook the way the Rams manhandled opponents. In their 13 wins
only three times did they trail as late as midway through the
second quarter, by six, four and two points, and they never
trailed in the second half. They won nine games by at least 20
points, and their smallest margin of victory was 13.

Tennessee, 13-3 after a 47-36 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on
Sunday, was the first team to defeat the Rams, 24-21 on Oct. 31.
Yet the Titans weren't regarded as a Super Bowl threat until they
blew out the Jaguars. "I guess they were trying to make a
statement," says Jacksonville's McCardell. "Well, they did."

Players around the league took notice. San Francisco 49ers
linebacker Ken Norton Jr., whose team defeated the Titans 24-22
on Oct. 3, favors Tennessee over the Jaguars and the Rams, even
though both those teams beat the Niners handily. St. Louis, in
fact, did it twice. "I don't see that magic with Jacksonville,"
Norton says. "Tennessee has it--whatever it is--that extra charge
you need to win in the playoffs. They're a physical, exciting
team, and they don't seem full of themselves."

If coach Jeff Fisher ever senses cockiness creeping into the
locker room of the Titans' lush new training facility, all he has
to do is remind players of starker times. As superb a coaching
job as Fisher has done in 1999, his success in holding the team
together through the previous three campaigns, all of which ended
in 8-8 records, may be even more impressive. Over the past four
years the franchise has had four home stadiums in three cities
(Houston, Memphis and Nashville) and until this year used
portable trailers for its headquarters.

The Titans are finally enjoying raucous support at new Adelphia
Coliseum, where they have yet to lose, but the home crowd's love
is not unconditional. In the season opener Tennessee trailed the
Bengals by nine points in the fourth quarter, and fans began
booing McNair, who was in the process of throwing for 341 yards
and engineering a 36-35 win. When McNair returned in late October
after missing five games with a back injury, many of those same
fans called for his replacement, Neil O'Donnell, to stay in the
lineup. That talk ended after McNair's five-touchdown performance
against the Jaguars--though some in the NFL still harbor doubts
about the Titans' 26-year-old quarterback.

"McNair had a great game against Jacksonville, but it was the
first time I've seen it," says Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan.
"I need to see it on a consistent basis. I would put eight in the
box and try to stop the run, and if you've got good enough
corners to play mano a mano--and you can throw some zone blitzes
at them and make McNair read some defenses--I think they can be

There are no quarterbacking worries in Indianapolis, where
second-year sensation Peyton Manning has pushed the Colts to the
top of the AFC East, football's toughest division. Indy, which
went 3-13 last season, was expected to get better this year, but
who could have foreseen the largest single-season improvement in
league history? The 13-3 Colts, whose 11-game winning streak was
snapped in a 31-6 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, have been
keyed by the youthful bliss of Manning and running back Edgerrin
James, who became the first rookie since Eric Dickerson in 1983
to lead the league in rushing.

Last Saturday, the day before facing the Bills, veteran defensive
end Mark Thomas and two callow offensive linemen, Jeff Saturday
and Steve McKinney, visited Niagara Falls and fell silent as they
beheld the cascade's awesome power. "As soon as we got back into
the cab, they started asking me about the playoffs," says Thomas,
who won a Super Bowl with the '94 Niners and played for Carolina
in the '96 NFC Championship Game. "'Does the excitement level go
up? Is the intensity different?' I told them, 'Darn right, it
is.' It's one of those things that's tough to describe. But
everyone will find out soon enough."

So which of these four contenders is the team to beat? Ask the
Bengals. Cincinnati is the only team to have played the Colts,
Jaguars, Rams and Titans; it went 0-6 in those games. "Shoot,
they're all damn good," says Bengals wideout Willie Jackson.
"I'll take Jacksonville. Then again, Tennessee...." Washington
Redskins cornerback Mark McMillian, who spent the season's first
six games with the 49ers, also faced each of the Big Four. "I'd
probably go with the Rams," he says, "because it seems like
everyone makes plays, and they've overcome a lot of adversity,
like losing their quarterback."

Ah, destiny: When Trent Green went down with a season-ending knee
injury on Aug. 28, 63-year-old Rams coach Dick Vermeil stayed up
late into the night shedding tears of despair. Now he unleashes
tears of joy in front of his players on an almost daily basis.
Vermeil gets choked up about heroes like Warner, who, among other
statistical achievements, has had nine 300-yard passing days;
running back Marshall Faulk, who on Sunday broke Barry Sanders's
single-season record for total yards rushing and receiving
(2,429); and members of an overlooked defense that has scored a
gaudy eight touchdowns. Apparently, the emotion is contagious.
Vermeil says owner Georgia Frontiere has become teary-eyed during
several recent postgame visits to the Rams' locker room. In
September, Frontiere, who is to punctuality what Bill Murray is
to golf etiquette, stunned her players when she showed up on time
for the team picture. "What a blessing," says Bruce, St. Louis's
Pro Bowl wideout. "It was the first time that's happened, as far
as we know. I guess she's as caught up in this as everyone else."

We predict that Georgia will show up at the Georgia Dome in time
to hoist the Rams' first Lombardi Trophy. In this goofiest of
seasons, what else would you expect?

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER DOUBLE TROUBLE Faulk, who set an NFL record for yards from scrimmage in a season, can beat you as a rusher or as a receiver.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO GROUND HOG James, the first rookie to lead the league in rushing in 16 years, gives some balance to the Colts' vaunted attack.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO QUESTION MARK Brunell is dangerous when he's healthy, but his injured left knee is a major concern for the Jaguars.

"They look emotionally tired," one coach said of the Jaguars.
"They have incredible talent, but they seem to be buckling."