The abundance of riches that is known as the St. Louis Rams' offense is monopolizing the spotlight in the days leading up to Sunday's NFC championship game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Having scored the third-most points in NFL history (526) during the regular season, the Rams, led by league MVP quarterback Kurt Warner, are favored by two touchdowns in the battle to represent the conference in the Super Bowl Jan. 30.
But the St. Louis defense brings plenty to the party, too.
The Rams' overshadowed defense ranked sixth in the NFL this season and was without peer against the run, which is the Buccaneers' strength. Its main weapon is defensive end Kevin Carter, who led the league with 17 sacks, wreaking every bit as much havoc as Bucs' defensive standout Warren Sapp but drawing half as much attention.
"It's just who I am," Carter said of his subdued manner, as muted as Sapp's is Technicolor. "To each his own. Obviously it works for him. It wouldn't work for me."
The game is shaping up as a classic battle, pitting the Rams' explosive offense against the Buccaneers' stingy defense. But the game's flip side is equally compelling, as Tampa Bay's Shaun King, 22, attempts to become the first rookie quarterback to start a Super Bowl. To do that, he'll have to get past Carter, a speedy 6 feet 5 and 280 pounds, who likens his passion for knocking quarterbacks on their backs to an "addiction."
"It's just the rush--the feeling of accomplishment that you single-handedly stopped one of their offensive plays," Carter said. "It's an addiction because it's a feeling--a feeling of accomplishment."
Even Sapp, who played alongside Carter as a teenager in the Florida-Georgia all-star high school football game, gushes at his ability. "I've never seen a man of his size and speed do the things he's capable of doing," Sapp said.
After uneventful morning practices, both teams' head coaches, quarterbacks and respective stars met with reporters this afternoon to assess one another's strengths and weaknesses. Most displayed confidence, poise, nice suits and good manners.
Warner re-lived his six months spent stocking grocery store shelves in Iowa by night, not long ago, while spending his days working out in hopes of getting an NFL tryout. King insisted he wasn't nervous, but simply excited about the big game. St. Louis wide receiver Isaac Bruce conceded that the Buccaneers' secondary might be able to handle the Rams' running game but doubted it could cover their receivers.
"We have so many weapons," Bruce said. "I feel like a kid in a candy store. We can beat you from so many places on the field. We have guys coming off the bench who would be starting on other teams."
Buccaneers safety John Lynch said the Rams had earned the right to be confident, but clearly didn't cotton to Bruce's slight of the secondary. Lynch, of course, made the Redskins' receiving corps pay dearly for Michael Westbrook's comment that the Bucs' secondary was "average" by intercepting a Brad Johnson pass meant for Albert Connell to spur the 14-13 comeback victory over Washington to advance to the championship game.
"I'm sure we'll have a chance to come in contact Sunday," Lynch said of Bruce. "I'll give him a nice Tampa hello." Asked if Bruce's comments were reminiscent of Westbrook, who had one catch in the loss, Lynch said: "I hope he has the numbers Westbrook had last week."
King didn't exhibit any nervousness today but was as cool as he appeared in the third quarter against the Redskins a week ago. Down 13-0, he flicked a touchdown pass with defensive end Ndukwe Kalu in his face. Still, he said he hoped to play much better Sunday. "Hopefully I got my bad stats out last week," King said.
If not, he'll likely be able to lean on the Buccaneers' defense, ranked third in the NFL. "What it does, it makes you not have to force things," King said. "Most of the time, they're going to get the ball back to us."
King is 5-1 as a starter in the NFL. Combined with a 12-0 record his senior year at Tulane, he is 17-1 in his last 18 starts.
"We need to do the same thing we did against a veteran quarterback last weekend [sacking Minnesota's Jeff George four times in a 49-37 victory]: Try to get pressure on him, get hands in his face and get hits on him and confuse him--the same thing you do to any quarterback to disrupt his rhythm," Carter said. "I know of one guy who could consistently throw strikes with a hand in his face, and he [John Elway] retired last year."
NFC Notes: While predicting Warner will be a long-term star in the NFL, Rams Coach Dick Vermeil had high praise for former Redskins quarterback Trent Green, who was the Rams' starter before a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. "I believe we'd be right where we are today if Trent Green weren't injured," Vermeil said. "Trent Green is a starting quarterback on a championship team in the NFL." Vermeil said Green's future with the team would be among the first orders of business once the postseason ends. . . . Tampa Bay WR Reidel Anthony (quadricep) will not play Sunday, Dungy said. . . . St. Louis K Jeff Wilkins (tendinitis in left knee) didn't kick today, but will play on Sunday.