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Original Issue

Just Like Old Times The Rams showed flashes of their championship season while streaking to an easy win over the Vikings

Inside the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Sunday, it felt like
1999 all over again. There were lots of quick scoring drives,
each one followed by a deafening roar from the crowd and the
playing of Bang on the Drum All Day over the stadium P.A. Before
you knew it, the Rams had broken clear of the Vikings in the
third quarter and were on their way to another blowout win at
home, 48-17.

Including the playoffs, St. Louis was 10-0 at home during its
1999 Super Bowl championship season, winning by an average of
21.4 points a game. These Rams are 6-0 in the dome, winning by an
average of 19.2 in those games. With a favorable December
schedule--St. Louis plays at Cleveland, at home against the
Seahawks and the Bengals, and at Detroit--it's beginning to look
as if the Rams will have home field advantage throughout the NFC
playoffs, just as they did in '99. St. Louis and Philadelphia are
tied at 9-3 atop the conference, but the Eagles have a tougher
schedule left, with home games against the Cowboys and the 49ers
and trips to play the Dolphins and the Redskins.

The similarities don't stop there. On Sunday running back
Marshall Faulk was spry and explosive, looking like the league
MVP of old. He ran for three touchdowns against Minnesota and
turned in his third consecutive 100-yard rushing game, collecting
108 yards on just 17 carries. Wideouts Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce
combined for 11 catches, 151 receiving yards and a touchdown. The
defense chipped in when safety Aeneas Williams scored on a
90-yard fumble return. And a storybook quarterback led St. Louis
to scores on seven of its 10 possessions, including two
touchdowns on one-play lightning strikes.

Four years ago the story was quarterback Kurt Warner's rise from
grocery-store stock boy to league MVP, arguably the most
surprising rise to greatness in NFL history. This season the
focus is on his replacement, Marc Bulger, a waiver-wire pickup in
2001 who is 15-3 as a starter. However, his ride hasn't been as
smooth as Warner's was. Going into Sunday's game, Bulger had
thrown 17 interceptions this season, the second most in the
league, and in his previous four games he had been picked off 10
times while tossing only four touchdown passes. Worse, the media
and the fans were clamoring for the return of Warner, who hasn't
played since the season-opening loss to the Giants, in which he
fumbled six times (THE LIFE OF REILLY, page 104).

On Sunday, Rams coach Mike Martz called plays early on that he
believed would help Bulger regain his confidence, sending him on
rollouts twice, putting him in the shotgun and going to shorter
drops against the toothless Vikings' defense. Bulger, who
completed 15 of 20 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown with one
interception, played with a self-assurance that reminded
observers of vintage Warner. "As bad as my stats have been
recently," Bulger said afterward, "I still felt like I was
throwing the ball really well. Maybe I've been too risky at
times, but when you're confident, which I am right now, you tend
to feel you can put the ball in there."

He was sacked once and made but one ill-advised throw: a bomb
into double coverage that was intercepted by Vikings safety Brian
Russell. "I wish he had overthrown it," Martz said. "But that's
the one mistake he made in this game. One."

That's about how many mistakes were made per game by the St.
Louis quarterback in 1999.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The confident Bulger ran for one touchdown and passed for anotheragainst the Vikings.