The St. Louis Rams entered today's NFC championship game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brimming with bravado. Their coach, Dick Vermeil, described them as a team with no glaring weaknesses. Wideout Isaac Bruce brazenly questioned the Buccaneers' ability to cover the Rams' arsenal of receivers.
True to their own prognostications, the Rams are marching on to Atlanta for Super Bowl XXXIV next Sunday. But it is by a narrower margin than expected, following their 11-6 victory over the Buccaneers before a sellout crowd of 66,496 at Trans World Dome.
The victory gives the Rams the second NFC championship in franchise history and sets up a meeting with the Tennessee Titans, who won their first AFC championship with a 33-14 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier in the day.
"I think we showed people we can play every kind of game," said Rams running back Marshall Faulk, the NFL offensive player of the year who was held to 44 yards rushing and five yards receiving. "They wanted to play ball control and take the deep ball away from us. We did the same to them and thought our offense could make more plays than them."
The Buccaneers' third-ranked defense held the Rams' powerful offense to a season-low point total. Quarterback Kurt Warner, the NFL's most valuable player, completed 26 of 43 passes for 258 yards. His 30-yarder to Ricky Proehl with 4 minutes 44 seconds remaining was his lone touchdown pass. Warner also threw three interceptions.
Until Warner's game-winning throw, Tampa Bay dictated the game's tenor, forcing exactly the type of low-scoring affair it wanted. In fact, the game's combined score (17 points) was about half the Rams' average output this season (33 points).
"We were trapped into playing their type of game with our turnovers and mistakes," said Vermeil, 63, the NFL's coach of the year who is taking his second team to the Super Bowl.
Said Warner: "The way they play defense, it's hard to get a read. They change things up, so you've got to work it down the field. I thought we did a decent job of that; we just didn't finish drives off. . . . It seemed like everywhere I wanted to throw, they had a lot of guys around, and they were all over us."
The Rams' defense allowed just 77 yards rushing. But it was Buccaneers who set the game's tone from the first play.
Just a week earlier, Warner had thrown a 76-yard touchdown pass to Bruce on the Rams' opening play against Minnesota. This afternoon, Warner's first throw was intercepted by defensive end Steve White.
The Buccaneers needed six plays to gain 13 yards, but converted White's play for a 25-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
St. Louis managed only one long drive in the first half. But the Rams had to settle for a field goal after Warner fumbled the snap on third and seven. Place kicker Jeff Wilkins nailed a 24-yarder to tie it at 3.
St. Louis took its first lead on a botched play by the Tampa Bay offense. With the Buccaneers on their 27, center Tony Mayberry snapped the ball over King's head. King ran it down as Rams defenders converged and knocked it out of the end zone for a safety that gave St. Louis a 5-3 edge.
With 1:13 left in the first half, the Bucs threatened to retake the lead. But Rams cornerback Todd Lyght intercepted King with 20 seconds remaining to preserve his team's edge.
The Buccaneers struck quickly in the second half. King hit Jacquez Green with a 32-yard completion, and a face-mask penalty against St. Louis moved the ball to the Rams 12. Again, the Rams' defense stopped the drive short, bringing up kicker Martin Gramatica, who was true from 23 yards to give the Bucs a 6-5 lead.
It was an interception of King by cornerback Dre Bly that set up the game-winning score. With 4:44 remaining, Warner dropped back on third and four from the Buccaneers 30. The plan was to get the ball to running back Faulk on the right side of the field. The Buccaneers blitzed, and Proehl, who had not caught a touchdown pass all season, was left in one-on-one coverage. Warner went his way.
"When the ball was in the air, I was thinking to myself, 'Go get it, baby! It's yours!' " Proehl said. His high school coach had told him this week that he would catch the game-winning score.
"It was total money," said Lyght. "It will go down as one of the greatest catches in the history of St. Louis football."
Warner's attempt at a two-point conversion pass failed, and the Rams settled for an 11-6 lead. The Buccaneers made one last charge into St. Louis territory. King was sacked twice on the drive. He also saw a 12-yard completion to Bert Emanuel with 47 seconds left overturned after officials said the ball hit the ground. His final effort--a deep throw on fourth and 11 from the Rams 35--was knocked out of the end zone by Taje Allen.
"It's a very tough feeling--difficult to be that close to a Super Bowl and not get it done," said Buccaneers Coach Tony Dungy. "They shut us down in the red zone, held us to field goals and made the big plays when they had to."