SEATTLE, Jan. 8 -- The St. Louis Rams were two games under .500 with two games to play in the regular season, and Coach Mike Martz's job security was tenuous enough in recent weeks that owner Georgia Frontiere sent letters to players assuring them that she didn't plan to fire him. In this season's NFC, that qualifies as a formula for success.
The Rams became a conference semifinalist Saturday by beating the Seattle Seahawks for the third time this season. They got a 17-yard touchdown pass by quarterback Marc Bulger to tight end Cam Cleeland with just more than two minutes remaining and barely held on in the furious closing seconds to defeat the Seahawks, 27-20, in a first-round NFC playoff game on a gray afternoon at Qwest Field.
Rams tight end Cam Cleeland catches the game-winner, a 17-yard pass from Marc Bulger with 2:11 left in the fourth quarter. "That's the biggest play of my career," Cleeland said.
(Paul Sakuma -- AP)
St. Louis survived a final drive by Seattle that ended at the Rams 5-yard line with a fourth-down incompletion from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to wide receiver Bobby Engram in the end zone, and became the first NFL team to win a playoff game after an 8-8 regular season.
"I thought they were going to go in there and tie it, and we were going to go to overtime,'' Martz said.
The Rams will play an NFC semifinal next weekend at Philadelphia or Atlanta, depending on the outcome of Sunday's Minnesota-Green Bay game. If the Rams face the Eagles, it will be a rematch of the Monday night game in the second-to-last week of the regular season in which Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid rested his front-line players. The Rams took advantage to beat the Eagles and keep their playoff hopes alive, then won in overtime against the New York Jets last Sunday to sneak into the postseason.
They got a favorable draw by being matched up with Seattle. The Seahawks won the NFC West but lost twice to the Rams during the regular season, once on an improbable fourth-quarter comeback here by St. Louis.
"It doesn't matter any more what our record was during the regular season," said Bulger, who was sacked five times but completed 18 of 32 passes for 313 yards. "It's nice to be playing our best football of the year right now."
The Rams jumped to a 14-3 lead courtesy of a 15-yard, first-quarter touchdown pass from Bulger to wide receiver Torry Holt and tailback Marshall Faulk's one-yard, second-quarter scoring run. The Seahawks (9-8) got two touchdown passes from Hasselbeck, one to Engram and one to fellow wideout Darrell Jackson, and grabbed a 20-17 advantage just over a minute into the fourth quarter. But the Rams hung tough, getting a tying field goal by kicker Jeff Wilkins with 8 minutes 7 seconds to go, then moving into position for Bulger's third-and-three completion to Cleeland with 2:11 left.
"It's just a simple play where I run down the seam," Cleeland said. "Marc put the ball up high, where I like it. You just tell yourself, 'Please hold on to that sucker.' That's the biggest play of my career."
Seattle managed a first down at the St. Louis 11 in the final minute. A sack by Rams defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy moved the Seahawks back to the 17, but Hasselbeck found Engram for a 12-yard gain on third down. On fourth and four from the 5, Hasselbeck scrambled around and, just before being tackled, slipped a sidearm throw toward Engram, who had the pass go off his hands with 21 seconds remaining.
"We were really close to getting it done,'' said Hasselbeck, who connected on 27 of 43 passes for 341 yards. "I could have helped us get it done, and we came up short again. I wish I had it back. I would have thrown it a little softer. The ball came in kind of hot, kind of low, in tight quarters. I think I surprised him a little bit. . . . Most of the guys are, like me, shocked that this is over. We were planning on winning this game."
The Seahawks remained winless in the playoffs since December 1984. They had spent the week distracted by controversies swirling around tailback Shaun Alexander, who accused Coach Mike Holmgren of costing him the NFL rushing title during last weekend's victory over the Falcons, and wideout Koren Robinson, who'd missed a practice and was sent home by Holmgren before the Atlanta game.
"It's very difficult," Holmgren said. "We played these guys three times this season, and they got all three. We had chances to win every game. We just didn't do it."
This was the worst playoff matchup in NFL history based on the regular season records of the participants, and it lived down to expectations early on. The Seattle secondary left Holt uncovered on the game's third play, and Bulger dropped in an on-target deep throw for a 52-yard gain and a first down at the Seahawks 11. The Rams promptly used two timeouts and got pushed back by a false-start penalty. But on third and 14 from the 15, Holt got open in the middle of the end zone and made a tumbling catch of Bulger's low throw.
On Seattle's first offensive play, a throw by Hasselbeck bounced off Jackson's hands, and Rams cornerback Travis Fisher got an interception on the carom. But the Rams got greedy and Bulger threw an interception on a deep pass for Holt.
The Seahawks broke through late in the first quarter on a 47-yard field goal by Josh Brown. The Rams responded quickly with Faulk's one-yard touchdown run, set up by a 50-yard strike from Bulger to wideout Kevin Curtis on the initial play of the second quarter. But Seattle got its offense moving to draw to within 14-10. A face-mask personal foul negated a Rams' interception, and Hasselbeck connected with Engram in the corner of the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown.
Brown's 30-yard field goal just more than six minutes into the second half narrowed the Seahawks' deficit to 14-13. The Rams answered with a 38-yard field goal by Wilkins, capping a drive that included a pair of third-down completions to Holt for first downs and a 31-yard catch and run by Curtis.
Seattle responded immediately for its first lead. Alexander got the Seahawks' drive started with a 25-yard gain on a screen pass, and a friendly spot on a completion to Jackson gave Seattle a first down at the Rams 23. On the following play, Jackson lost cornerback DeJuan Groce, made the catch and sprinted into the end zone to put the Seahawks up, 20-17.