ST. LOUIS, Jan. 2 -- The announcement that Washington had defeated Minnesota brought the fans inside the Edward Jones Dome to their feet at the two-minute warning of Sunday's game between the St. Louis Rams and the New York Jets. The Redskins had just opened the playoff door for their Rams. St. Louis only had to walk through it.
Marc Bulger and Jeff Wilkins made sure St. Louis did its part. A pair of perfectly placed passes by Bulger (450 yards passing, three touchdowns) late in overtime set up a 31-yard field goal by Wilkins and lifted the Rams to a wild, 32-29 victory and an NFC wild-card berth, despite their unsightly 8-8 record.
It was all smiles in St. Louis after a field goal by Jeff Wilkins (14) in overtime helped beat the Jets and clinch a playoff berth for the Rams, their fourth in five years under Mike Martz.
(Kyle Ericson -- AP)
_____From The Post_____
Michael Wilbon: Everybody will see how super the Steelers are.
In the Rams' locker room afterward, many of the players were glued to televisions as they got dressed, watching the Seattle-Atlanta game. The Rams still could have claimed their second consecutive NFC West title with a Seahawks loss. The Seahawks won the game, 28-26, meaning the Rams will open the playoffs in Seattle next week.
The Jets (10-6), meantime, also began the day knowing a win would clinch a postseason berth. They wasted a 153-yard rushing performance by running back Curtis Martin, but wound up backing into the playoffs anyway thanks to Pittsburgh's victory over Buffalo, a result they found out about before overtime began.
The Jets could relax. The Rams, on the other hand, had some unfinished business.
"We knew that Washington had won during the fourth quarter, so we knew if we won, we would get in the playoffs," Bulger said. "We stepped up today when we had to and we made the big play when it was needed. We took care of business and we have a lot of veterans who believe in this team."
Bulger admitted he wasn't so confident in the third quarter, when the Rams were in the process of blowing a 21-10 lead. Rams running back Steven Jackson gave his team that 11-point lead on a 20-yard scoring run 1 minute 30 seconds into the second half.
But the Jets ripped off the next 16 points -- Jerricho Cotchery returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, Doug Brien kicked a 33-yard field goal and rookie linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned an interception 38 yards for a score -- to put New York ahead 26-21 with 1:12 remaining in the third.
"We tried our best to give this game away," said Rams wide receiver Torry Holt, who had a team-best 116 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions. "But I'm very proud of the way we responded. . . . This is the NFL. This is the kind of game they should show over and over."
The fourth quarter was equally dramatic.
Bulger connected with Holt on a 19-yard touchdown pass with 5:06 left in regulation to put the Rams ahead 29-26 following a two-point conversion. But another long kickoff return by Cotchery set up the Jets near midfield.
Thirteen plays later, Brien forced overtime with three seconds remaining in the fourth with a 27-yard field goal, a kick Brien probably shouldn't have had the opportunity to try -- two plays prior, St. Louis safety Adam Archuleta dropped a sure interception at the goal line that would have sealed a Rams' win in regulation.
"He normally makes that play," Rams Coach Mike Martz said. "You just have to move on."
In overtime, after the teams had exchanged possession three times, Brien missed a field goal from 53 yards, setting up the Rams at their 43. Bulger made two splendid passes -- the first to Holt for 14 yards and the other to Jackson for 22 -- to put Wilkins in position to kick the game-winner with 3:02 remaining and cap the longest overtime in the NFL this season.