The St. Louis Rams imposed a penalty on themselves Friday. Anyone who uttered the phrase "Super Bowl" before Sunday's NFC championship game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was over would be fined $50.
As yet, no one has been forced to pay. But the words hardly need be spoken. From NFL analysts to T-shirt manufacturers, the message is clear: The Rams (14-3) are overwhelming favorites to cruise into Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta on Jan. 30, capping one of the more dramatic single-season turnarounds in pro football history.
The Rams won five games last season and finished last in the NFC West Division for a second consecutive year.
This season, they reinvented themselves with an unknown quarterback, a first-time offensive coordinator and a newly acquired running back to win an NFC-best 13 regular season games, clinch their first division title since 1985 and emerge as 14-point favorites to advance to the Super Bowl for only the second time in the franchise's 63-year history.
Coach Dick Vermeil made no apologies for the confidence his team exuded this week. "We don't line up worried about losing," Vermeil said.
While few would have given the Rams even scant hope of gaining a wild-card playoff berth five months ago, Vermeil insists he hasn't been surprised by their success, given the players' talent and the "small wins" he marked along the way since being coaxed back to coaching in 1997 after a 14-year hiatus.
All but forgotten in this game are the NFC Central champion Buccaneers (12-5), who squeaked past the Washington Redskins, 14-13, last week after falling behind, 13-0. Except for the verbose Warren Sapp, the Buccaneers are exhibiting a quiet confidence nonetheless.
"We've been underdogs before," said Coach Tony Dungy, who will try to engineer an upset Sunday with rookie quarterback Shaun King.
After starting 3-4, Tampa Bay rebounded with an improbable season of its own, winning a franchise-record 11 regular season games. King, 22, has shown poise beyond his years, posting a 5-1 record as a starter since Trent Dilfer suffered a broken clavicle Nov. 28.
Sunday's game is a rematch of the NFC championship game played 20 years ago, when the Rams defeated the Buccaneers, 9-0, to advance to Super Bowl XIV. The Pittsburgh Steelers claimed their fourth title that year, 31-19.
According to popular T-shirts here, the 1999 Rams are "Atlanta-bound."
"They feel good about themselves," Tampa Bay strong safety John Lynch said. "Good for them."
Bucs defensive tackle Sapp takes the opposite view. "The only one I've ever known to be untouchable was Elliott Ness," Sapp said. "And I believe he's gone."
The Rams have been Ness-like at the Trans World Dome this season, where they are 9-0 with a combined score of 330-121. The ruckus was deafening during last week's 49-37 thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings.
Such offensive fireworks have made a star not only of quarterback Kurt Warner, who rose from obscurity to throw 41 touchdown passes this season and become the NFL's MVP, but also of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who was virtually unknown as the Redskins quarterbacks coach in 1997 and '98.
Martz, 48, was among three candidates for the Rams job, and Vermeil recalls his selection as something of "a risk."
This week, Martz was rewarded with a two-year contract extension that guarantees him the head coaching job once Vermeil steps down.
"He does a great job of mixing it up and going for the throat," Rams right guard Adam Timmerman said.
Martz has terrific players to work with, to be sure, including four wide receivers with speeds of 4.4 seconds or better in the 40-yard dash and running back Marshall Faulk, acquired in a trade with Indianapolis, who set an NFL record with 2,429 all-purpose yards.
The Rams' offensive system shares a lineage with the Redskins, having descended from the "Air Coryell" attack developed in the late 1970s by Don Coryell.
What makes the Rams' version so potent has been the number, speed and reliability of wide receivers. That gives Warner plenty of options. He helps with a quick release.
The Buccaneers' best hope is forcing turnovers, which swung the momentum against the Redskins. The Rams gave away the ball 31 times this season (15 interceptions, 16 lost fumbles).
When the Buccaneers have the ball, they'll probably have to score more often than they have so far this season. St. Louis has yet to score fewer than 21 points in a game this season. The Buccaneers, by contrast, average just 17 points per game.
"We're going to have to use all our weapons," Dungy said.
Even after falling behind Minnesota, 17-14, last week, the Rams continued playing with confidence and abandon.
That attitude reminds Timmerman of the Green Bay Packers squads of the mid-'90s, with which he went to the NFC championship game three times. Specifically, it reminds him of the 1996 Packers, who went on to win Super Bowl XXXI.
"It's a younger team that's just getting a taste of it all," Timmerman said. "And it's real hungry."