Two acts left in a pointed drama

Potent Rams, Jaguars look for Super scores

January 17, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Contrary to popular opinion, Kurt Warner has not yet put the Arena League behind him. No, the quarterback of the St. Louis Rams brought it to the NFL with him this year -- in concept at least.

Warner's latest Arena rendition -- 390 yards and five touchdown passes -- will carry the Rams to the franchise's first NFC championship game in 10 years next Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Scoring touchdowns in bunches, Sunday's Arena-like, 49-37 victory over the Minnesota Vikings was still more evidence of how speed and offense have come to rule the NFL postseason. But on a weekend during which Warner and the Rams produced seven touchdowns, they were outdone by those point-a-minute Jacksonville Jaguars.

On Saturday, the Jaguars hung eight touchdowns and 62 points on the Miami Dolphins, winning by 55.

Could things be any wilder in that 50-yard league?

The NFL's final four has checked in, and if this weekend was any indication, Super Bowl XXXIV two weeks hence in Atlanta will be offense-inspired.

Next Sunday's championship games offer what could be two classic matchups, or two classic mismatches, depending on whether defense still carries any weight in these playoff reckonings.

Fresh from making a mockery of Minnesota's sieve-like secondary, the Rams will try to take apart Tampa Bay's tenacious defense in the NFC final in St. Louis.

Before that, the Tennessee Titans will see if they can beat the Jaguars three times in one season -- and twice at Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium, no less -- in the AFC title game.

Outside of a 68-yard touchdown run by Eddie George, the Titans' offense was along for the ride in a 19-16 win over the Indianapolis Colts. It was defense that earned the franchise's first conference championship game in 20 years, when the Titans were still the Houston Oilers.

The Jaguars are the only one of the four remaining teams that has been in a championship game in the 1990s. They will go for the second time in four years, motivated by the lack of respect they perceive from around the country. Interestingly, there's a similar refrain being heard in St. Louis, where a fifth-place schedule coincided with the arrival of Warner to put the Rams over the top this season.

These are two teams not happy about the scrutiny of their schedules.

But the real fireworks may not start until -- and unless -- the Rams and Jaguars face off in the Georgia Dome.

Here's what you can look for on championship Sunday.

Tennessee (15-3) at Jacksonville (15-2): The wild-card Titans are the lowest seed (No. 4) still playing, but history is on their side. Not only did they beat the Jaguars twice this season (20-19 on Sept. 26 and 41-14 on Dec. 26), they are 4-1 playing in Jacksonville.

While the Jaguars were careful with their words following Saturday's blowout, cornerback Aaron Beasley voiced the obvious sentiment when he said, "It doesn't matter who we play [but] I would like to see Tennessee because of the fact we lost twice to them."

The Titans' blitzing defensive schemes figure to give Jacksonville's remade offensive line more fits than the Dolphins did. The best matchup pits Tennessee defensive end Jevon Kearse, Defensive Rookie of the Year, against right tackle Leon Searcy, who made Miami's Trace Armstrong disappear.

Whether the Titans turn loose quarterback Steve McNair is another story. He completed 40 of 65 passes for 495 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception in the two wins over Jacksonville. The Jaguars' Mark Brunell hit 26 of 53 for 327, one TD and four interceptions, and sprained his left knee in the Week 16 game.

The Jaguars didn't have Fred Taylor, their big-play back, in the first game, and he rushed for only 44 yards in the second. That's where the Jaguars will start the game plan.

Tampa Bay (12-5) at St. Louis (14-3): The Bucs played three games against top-flight offensive competition this season. They split their season series with the Vikings, but were steamrolled by the Oakland Raiders, 45-0. The Rams have a lot more weapons than the Raiders.

Tampa Bay will have to play ball-control offense with a rookie quarterback. When the Bucs' defense is on the field, cornerbacks Donnie Abraham and Ronde Barber will have their hands full trying to cover wide-outs Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim.

Then there's the issue of running back Marshall Faulk. The Rams nearly ignored him in the first half yesterday, and still had little trouble scoring.

Not only does coach Tony Dungy have to figure how to defuse St. Louis' big-play offense, he has to find a way to protect rookie quarterback Shaun King from a Rams pass rush that pummeled Minnesota's Jeff George.

The Bucs have to hope defense still carries clout in these playoffs.

NFL playoffs

Divisional round

Yesterday's results St. Louis 49, Minnesota 37

Tenn. 19, Indianapolis 16

Saturday's results

Jacksonville 62, Miami 7 T. Bay 14, Washington 13

Next Sunday's games

AFC championship

Tenn. at Jacksonville 12: 30 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Line: Jacksonville by 7

NFC championship

Tampa Bay at St. Louis 4: 15 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Line: St. Louis by 13 1/2

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