The St. Louis Rams took a stranglehold on the NFC playoffs Sunday. The road to Super Bowl XXXIV runs through the Trans World Dome and all its trappings.
That means whoever faces the Rams in the postseason will have to defuse Kurt Warner's high-speed game of pitch-and-catch. It means finding a solution for Marshall Faulk, St. Louis' multi-threat running back. It means not turning the ball over against a defense that has scored seven touchdowns this year.
Mission impossible? Perhaps. But the Minnesota Vikings were the No. 1 seed and prohibitive pick in the NFC playoffs a year ago, and look what happened to them: beaten in their own house by another dome team.
Can any other NFC contender stay with the Rams, who have scored 30 points or more 10 times this season and produced 400 yards or better on seven occasions? The New York Giants tried in Week 15 and got smashed. But they don't have enough offense. Here are three teams that might have enough to make it interesting on the Trans World carpet:
Minnesota: A dome team and an underdog. The Vikings, who played the Green Bay Packers last night, have enough weapons if wide receiver Cris Carter is healthy and wide-out Randy Moss is making plays. Jeff George has a lot of experience in domes -- as the home-team quarterback, he's played in three of them.
The Vikings' defense is the problem, though. It was ranked 30th going into last week.
Washington: The Redskins can generate offense. They gained more than 400 yards four times and went over 500 once. Quarterback Brad Johnson has thrown for 3,459 yards and 22 touchdowns. Stephen Davis leads the NFL with 1,405 rushing yards and could test the St. Louis defense, but has an ankle sprain.
This would have to be a shootout, though, because the Redskins don't play defense.
Carolina: Quietly, the Panthers have climbed into playoff contention at 7-7. Although they need help, they could do some damage if they reach the postseason. They have scored at least 30 points seven times, including four of the past five games. They have the second-most productive quarterback in the league in Steve Beuerlein, who has thrown for 3,851 yards and 29 touchdowns. They have options at running back in Tshimanga Biakabutuka, who missed Saturday's win over San Francisco, and Fred Lane.
Defense? Same story. Hardly enough to speak of.
For the Rams, that's called home-field advantage.
Passing the Bucs
The Oakland Raiders likely will play what-might-have-been in the off-season. Their 45-0 demolition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday will serve as proof they should have done better.
The Raiders rushed for a staggering 262 yards against the Bucs' No. 2 rush defense, which has yielded an average of 81.6 going in. Napoleon Kaufman had more than that in touchdown runs (17 and 75 yards), and finished with 122. Tyrone Wheatley, who got a three-year, $10 million contract extension last week, added 111.
Nearly as impressive was the Raiders' defense, which held the one-dimensional Bucs to 34 rushing yards on 19 carries.
But at 7-7, the Raiders are whistling in the playoff cemetery. They lost four games by a total of 11 points, and lost at home to Denver, Miami and Kansas City.
When wide-out Derrick Alexander of the Kansas City Chiefs scored on an 82-yard run Saturday against Pittsburgh, it marked the sixth touchdown of 50 yards or more surrendered by the Steelers' cardboard defense in the past four weeks. That total leads the NFL.
Four of those, however, came in a Week 14 loss to the Ravens, who, not coincidentally, have scored a league-high eight offensive touchdowns of 50 yards or more. Wide-out Qadry Ismail is tied with several players for the league lead with three; all of his came against Pittsburgh, all in one quarter. Patrick Johnson has two for the Ravens, and Justin Armour, Errict Rhett and Priest Holmes each has one.
The Panthers have scored seven 50-yards-plus touchdowns on offense.
Atlanta's Danny Kanell and Philadelphia's Koy Detmer became the third quarterbacks to start for their respective teams on Sunday, and raised to 59 the number of quarterbacks who have started in the league this season. Kanell made his first start of 1999 for injured Chris Chandler, and Detmer debuted in place of injured Donovan McNabb.
In 1998, a total of 62 quarterbacks started.
When Denver Broncos linebacker Glenn Cadrez ended Sunday's game against Seattle with a 37-yard touchdown run on a fumble recovery, it was the second time in NFL history an overtime game was decided on a fumble return.
The first was in 1983, when Baltimore Colts linebacker Johnie Cooks did it to the Giants.