The Atlanta Falcons have seen this before. Today, they saw a team that makes big plays on special teams and defense, takes advantage of the opponent's turnovers, and has a terrific running back to go with a suddenly emerging quarterback. In fact, the 1999 St. Louis Rams look a lot like the 1998 Atlanta Falcons.
The Rams remained the NFL's only undefeated team after shredding the Falcons, 41-13, before 51,973 at the Georgia Dome.
"That's us out there . . . us last year," Falcons wide receiver Terance Mathis said. "Their guys were saying after the game, 'We're just doing what you did last year.' I knew some teams in the NFL would see how this franchise turned things around quickly and they would think, 'We can do that, too.' With all the talent they have, you knew they could break out, just like we did last year."
Marshall Faulk looks as valuable to St. Louis this season as Jamal Anderson looked to Atlanta last season. Faulk rushed for 181 yards on 18 carries and scored a touchdown.
Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, a 28-year-old starting only because Trent Green suffered a season-ending injury during the preseason, completed 13 of 20 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown. Unheard of before this season, he is the Rams' counterpart to Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler, who was passed around to six teams and considered a career backup before becoming a steady starting presence in Atlanta two years ago. Chandler and Anderson led the Falcons to a 14-2 regular season in 1998 and a berth in the Super Bowl.
There doesn't appear to be any chance for another surprise run by Atlanta to the Super Bowl, which will be played Jan. 31 at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons, who lost Anderson to a knee injury the second game of the season and played without injured starting linebackers Keith Brooking and Jessie Tuggle today, looked anemic as they slipped to 1-5. They committed three turnovers and were called for 10 penalties. The defense missed one tackle after another and the offense managed just 41 yards rushing.
"Right now, we can't do anything right," Falcons safety Eugene Robinson said.
Atlanta was burned by a 91-yard interception return by Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom and the normally reliable Falcons special teams surrendered Tony Horne's 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Fans were so displeased by their team's play they started chanting the Braves' war whoop in the third period with the Rams ahead 34-10. Fans booed loudly with 4 minutes 25 seconds to play when Coach Dan Reeves sent Morten Andersen out to kick a 25-yard field goal with Atlanta trailing 41-10.
St. Louis established itself as the superior team with its first two possessions. The Rams went 76 yards in 10 plays with their first turn with the ball to take a 7-0 lead as Faulk ran five times for 40 yards.
"Their safeties were back and playing the pass. They wanted to take Ike [wide receiver Issac Bruce] out of the game," Faulk said. "We had some room to run on them."
Following a Falcons punt, St. Louis went 60 yards in 10 plays to push the lead to 14-0. Faulk capped the drive with a six-yard touchdown run on fourth and one.
It was 14-7 when Horne rushed out of the end zone with Andersen's kickoff and appeared to be bottled up at his 25. But he escaped the pack and raced up the left sideline and into the end zone as the lead swelled to 21-7 with 10:59 to play in the second quarter.
Atlanta had a chance to cut into the lead late in the second quarter with a first and goal at the St. Louis 9. But Chandler's pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage and Wistrom, a 267-pound lineman, caught it and charged down the left sideline for a 91-yard touchdown return and a 28-7 lead.
There was no chance for a comeback after Chandler left the game early in the third quarter with the Falcons down by 18. The quarterback, who missed three of four games with a strained hamstring, was suffering from flu and was too weak to continue playing. The Rams cruised after that.
"We don't want to be like the Falcons last year," offensive tackle Orlando Pace said. "When we get to the postseason, we don't want to just show up for the Super Bowl. We want to win it."