As St. Louis Rams Coach Dick Vermeil spoke to his team at halftime today, there was no ranting, no shrieking, no pointed fingers. "I just told them, 'Guys, we're only down by three, we've taken their best shot and the only one who's stopped us is ourselves. Let's go get the job done.' "
For the next 30 minutes, his team took those measured words to heart, starting with Tony Horne's 95-yard return of the second-half kickoff for a St. Louis touchdown that set off an explosion of 35 straight points and culminated in a 49-37 victory over the Minnesota Vikings that clearly was not even that close.
The first home playoff victory in the pro football history of this river city vaulted the Rams and their breakaway offense into the NFC championship game here next Sunday against the NFC Central champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It sets up a confrontation between the Rams' NFL-best offense against the Bucs' No. 3 defense, with the winner advancing to the Super Bowl Jan. 30 in Atlanta.
"So much for not having much experience in the playoffs," Vermeil said. Former UCLA basketball coach "John Wooden told me a long time ago that talent is more important than experience, and we have have a lot of talent on this football team. I expected to win. Our coaches expected to win. Our players expected to win. We did what we thought we ought to do, and then we got it done."
The NFL's most productive offense was in sync from the first play from scrimmage today. Quarterback Kurt Warner took a quick drop, saw wide receiver Isaac Bruce running free in a seam inside the Vikings' zone defense and got him the ball at midfield in full stride for a 77-yard touchdown and a quick 7-3 lead.
The Rams knew they had to be even swifter than the likes of Minnesota sprinters Randy Moss and Cris Carter, two of the game's most dangerous wide receivers. They combined for three touchdown receptions, but the two scoring passes to Moss--double-teamed all game--came in the final 3 minutes 48 seconds of garbage time and only made the score seem more respectable.
The Rams' frequently forgotten defense, ranked sixth in the NFL, put the clamps on the Vikings in that critical third quarter. Minnesota had the ball for just 2 1/2 minutes in the decisive period and two of its three possessions ended after three plays and a punt. The Vikings had no first downs in the quarter and minus-two yards total offense, and the Rams rallied from a 17-14 halftime deficit to a 35-17 advantage entering the final 15 minutes.
The Vikings also fumbled twice in the third period, the first on a kickoff and the second coming when quarterback Jeff George--rattled by the roaring crowd--couldn't handle a center snap that was recovered by the Rams' D'Marco Farr at the Minnesota 23. Four plays later, on first and goal from the 1, Warner threw a touchdown pass to Ryan Tucker on a tackle-eligible play with 13:36 remaining for a 42-17 lead.
Still, players on both sides agreed that Horne's kickoff return might have been the most important play of the game. Instantly, the Vikings were rocked back on their heels after the Rams had shown some signs of vulnerability in the first half with a fumble, an interception and several critical dropped passes.
The Vikings had the ball for nearly 24 of the game's first 30 minutes, held the Rams to six yards rushing and were feeling pretty good about their chances at intermission, if only they could manage to contain the Rams' big-play offense.
They did not feel very well for long thereafter.
Horne, a 173-pound second-year speedster from Clemson, got the Rams back on track as he fielded Mitch Berger's kickoff at his 5. He burst through a gaping hole created by his wedge blockers and stumbled momentarily before regaining his balance and dashed untouched into the end zone.
"It was all about setting them up, setting them up," Horne said. "The first time, I got too close to the wedge, and I tried to hurdle them and got caught. I was close on the second one, too. Once you get that rhythm going like that, you know it's going to happen."
Said George: "We were pretty fired up coming in at halftime up three, and having that happen right off took a lot out of us. We thought the crowd was out of it at that time, and we felt we had them right where we wanted them. But they stepped up. The whole momentum changed. Their special teams have been making plays work all year. That's what makes them so good."
It also doesn't hurt to have Warner at the controls. The former Arena league and NFL Europe player who became a starter when former Redskin Trent Green went down with a knee injury in the preseason provided another stunning performance typical of his league MVP season.
Warner finished with a 142.99 passer rating, completing 27 of his 33 attempts for 391 yards and five touchdowns. Ten Rams caught passes, and his five scoring passes went to five receivers. The Vikings sacked him just twice, and the only thing that bothered him was a constant stream of chatter by Vikings defensive tackle John Randle.
"He didn't shut up all day," Warner said.
As usual, Warner did his talking with his arm.
"We've done that all year," said Warner, who had 41 scoring passes during the Rams' 13-3 regular season. "We've tried to spread it around, make them cover everyone, and everyone was making plays. We came in loose, we were ready to go. You don't really treat it like pressure, and it was great to get out of the blocks quickly [with his scoring pass to Bruce] and get the fans into it."
And what about next week's matchup against the Bucs, a 14-13 winner over the Redskins on Saturday, mostly because of a defense lead by another big talker, Warren Sapp.
"I haven't seen a defense that can stop this offense," Warner said. "People will have to do it to prove it to me."
By the Numbers
The passer rating for Rams' Kurt Warner (above). The playoff record is 150.9 by the Giants' Phil Simms in Super Bowl XXI.
Warner's touchdown passes -- one short of the NFL playoff record held by Daryle Lamonica of Oakland (1969) and Steve Young of San Francisco (1995).
Combined points, making it the second-highest scoring playoff game in NFL history, behind Philadelphia's 58-37 win over Detroit in 1995.
Passing yards for Vikings' Jeff George -- third-best in playoff history behind Bernie Kosar (1986) with 489 and Dan Fouts (1981) with 433, both in overtime.