The St. Louis Rams' 11-6 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Sunday's NFC championship exposed vulnerabilities in the league's most powerful offense, with Super Bowl XXXIV looming one week away.
The Rams romped through the regular season, scoring the third-most points in NFL history (526). Rams Coach Dick Vermeil has been so smitten with quarterback Kurt Warner that he drew comparisons last week between Warner and Joe Montana, wondering aloud if Warner's arm one day would be the standard against which the greats are measured, much as Montana's is today.
But under pressure from Tampa Bay's defense, Warner proved that, like any developing quarterback, he is prone to bad throws and poor decisions when his rhythm is disrupted. Warner threw a season-high three interceptions Sunday, finishing with a 56.2 quarterback rating, his lowest of the year. The Rams (15-3) managed just one touchdown, instead of their customary four, and that didn't come until the fourth quarter.
The Rams' 309 yards of total offense was 91 yards shy of their typical output. And Rams running back Marshall Faulk, whose 2,429 all-purpose yards this season set an NFL record, contributed just 49 yards to the cause (44 rushing, five receiving).
But as the Rams reveled in the fact that they're advancing to the Super Bowl, there was no indication that the narrow margin of victory had tempered their considerable confidence as they launch into preparations for Sunday's meeting with the Tennessee Titans (16-3). If anything, it seems that the Rams' modest claim on the NFC title only reinforced the air of invincibility that the team carried all week.
"We are the best defense in the league, period," proclaimed Rams cornerback Todd Lyght after the victory. Oddsmakers made them anywhere from 7- to 9-point favorites to win the franchise's first Super Bowl.
The Rams' defense was impressive against Tampa Bay, holding the Buccaneers to just 203 yards. Rookie quarterback Shaun King was sacked five times (twice on the final drive that could have won the game) and intercepted twice.
But Tennessee should prove a more formidable opponent than Tampa Bay. The Titans are among three teams to have beaten the Rams this season--the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions were the others--claiming a 24-21 victory in Nashville on Oct. 31. Tennessee also was the only team other than Tampa Bay to hold the Rams without a first-half touchdown.
"We know Tennessee's a very good football team," middle linebacker London Fletcher said. "You don't beat Jacksonville three times without being a very good football team."
Still, the Rams' faith in their offense is unshaken, and their confidence in their defense is at an all-time high.
"Nobody gives our defense credit," Faulk said. "Coming into this game they were all talking about the Tampa Bay defense. Our defense held every time. They made the plays they were supposed to make. For them to be on the field with four minutes to go and to not let them get past the 30--that says a lot. Everybody raves about our offense, but believe me: The defense gives us the opportunity to go out there and make plays."
When St. Louis has the ball against Tennessee, Warner will have to show more poise than he did on Sunday and in the Rams' loss to the Titans earlier in the year.
In Tennessee's 24-21 victory, the Titans defense gave him fits in the first half, sacking him four times. He also lost two fumbles that produced touchdowns that helped Tennessee to a 21-0 first-quarter lead.
Warner wasn't sacked by Tampa Bay in the NFC championship, but he did miss some throws as the Bucs' front four charged. Warner's first throw, intended for Faulk, was tipped and intercepted by defensive end Steve White. In a seven-minute span in the second half, he threw a pair of interceptions that were snagged by linebacker Hardy Nickerson and cornerback Brian Kelly. The ineffectual Tampa Bay offense, however, ended up punting on both possessions.
"It was like a baseball score," said Rams right guard Adam Timmerman of the 11-6 result. "But we'll take it anyway we can get it."