Publish date:

Can Anyone Beat The Rams?


"Yeah," says St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk. "Us."

That's what coach Mike Martz has been telling the Rams all
season, and he's right. St. Louis lost two games, 24-17 to the
Bucs and 34-31 to the Saints, in which it turned over the ball a
total of 14 times. As Martz considered the Rams' playoff chances
after practice last Saturday, it was clear he thought this club
was better equipped to run the postseason table than the Super
Bowl XXXIV winners. "It's not even close," he said. "We've got so
much speed on defense that we didn't have two years ago, and
we're better on defense. We're cresting, and I've never been
around a team that's more confident."

The St. Louis coaches would prefer to play the teams they haven't
faced recently--the Bears and the Packers haven't been on the
Rams' schedule the past two years--because they think defenses
need a few series to adjust to St. Louis's speed on offense.
Chicago's quick defense might harass quarterback Kurt Warner
(left), but can the Bears' offense score enough to keep up? The
Packers' Brett Favre probably can't win a shootout. This season
the Rams were 3-0 against the 49ers and the Eagles combined,
though Philadelphia's relentless pursuit and physical secondary
frustrated St. Louis in the Rams' 20-17 overtime win on Sept. 9.

And don't forget the Bucs. With a wild-card win at Philly, Tampa
Bay, the NFC's sixth seed, would earn a trip to St. Louis. The
Rams have lost their last two to the Bucs, and in the meeting
before that they had to struggle mightily to win 11-6 at home in
the 1999 NFC Championship Game.

Warner has played the Bucs three times, completing only 57% of
his throws, with four touchdowns and eight interceptions. "This
league's so much about matchups," he says, "and they have some
really good defensive matchups against us." Physical safeties.
Clinging cornerbacks who know when to take risks. An interior
defense that can plug holes. A quarterback who doesn't turn the
ball over.

In the AFC the Steelers are the closest thing to a complete team.
With a pass rush that comes from every angle and one of the NFL's
most versatile offenses, Pittsburgh would bug Warner and drive
the ball on St. Louis's defense. In the end, though, how well the
Rams play will determine whether anyone else has a chance.

--Peter King