For heavily favored Rams, future is now

January 23, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

ST. LOUIS -- Four teams still have a shot at winning the Super Bowl, but one has a better shot than the rest. The Rams couldn't ask for more favorable circumstances. It's their turn to win, quite clearly.

Does that mean they're a lock to beat the Bucs today in the NFC title game and go on to win the first Super Bowl title in franchise history? Hardly. It was the Vikings' turn to win at least an NFC title a year ago, and they lost at home to the Falcons in the NFC championship game.

The Vikings swore they'd come back this season and make amends, but things weren't the same, as they seldom are. Brian Billick had moved to Baltimore, Randall Cunningham had lost his touch and a team that had gone 15-1 the year before needed a wild-card pass to reach the playoffs. The Rams knocked them out last week.

The lesson in that tale of woe? You'd better take advantage when it's your turn, because such windows of opportunity aren't open for long, particularly in today's upside-down NFL. Things have a way of changing, and then it's someone else's turn.

Who knows what might happen to the Rams after this unforeseen season of dominance? There could be a coaching change if Dick Vermeil wins a Super Bowl. Fairy-tale quarterback Kurt Warner certainly will want a lot more than the minimum salary he earned this season. And what if quarterback Trent Green returns from a knee injury throwing darts? As always, the possibilities are almost limitless.

But the point is that none of that matters now. The Rams are two wins away from their dream and they're positioned so perfectly you'd almost swear a fix was in.

Not only are they playing today at home, in the Trans World Dome, on the artificial surface that has accentuated their remarkable speed all season, but the Super Bowl also will be played in a dome next week in Atlanta.

With two "outdoor" teams, the Jaguars and Titans, playing for the AFC title today, the Rams will have a decided advantage for the rest of the playoffs. They're 11-1 indoors and 3-2 outdoors this season.

They can't celebrate until they get past the Bucs' formidable defense today, but they're heavy favorites for a reason. The Bucs' offense was ranked 30th in the NFL during the season, about as low as you can go. That's just not good enough to win a conference title.

The Bucs' rookie quarterback, Shaun King, is a winner, but it's asking a lot to expect him to get it done in such daunting conditions -- on the road, in a championship game, with limited pro experience and no downfield threats.

Last year in the NFC title game, the underdog Falcons had a veteran quarterback, a solid running game and several downfield threats -- a far more threatening cache.

The Bucs obviously can't trade scores with the Rams, whose prolific offensive style almost resembles pinball or fast-break basketball more than football. The Bucs' only hope is to knock the Rams' receivers around early, cause a few turnovers, get ahead, slow down the pace with their running game and try to hang on.

If that happens and the upset occurs, you will know that, for the second straight season, a team had blown its turn to win the NFC title and reach the Super Bowl.

And unlike last year's Vikings, who would have had to play the powerful Broncos in the Super Bowl, the Rams would face a Super opponent new to the big stage, increasing their chances of winning.

True, the Jaguars and Titans are a combined 30-5 this season, so they're hardly slouches. But let's face it, either would be a preferable Super opponent to last season's Broncos.

The Rams also would be new to the Super stage, of course, leveling the playing field. And there's always a chance Warner's bubble will burst as he gets deeper into the playoffs and the defensive opposition improves.

But at this point, it's hard to imagine the Rams melting down as the Vikings did a year ago. Vermeil and his staff have whittled down their offensive scheme to a tight collection of simple plays that emphasize the game-breaking talents of Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and the rest of Warner's supporting cast. There's no running game. Every play resembles a punt return starting with a short pass Warner can hit. It's a scheme with no fat, really tough to beat.

The Bucs will throw a tough, physical defense at it today, and the Jaguars probably will throw their balanced blend of passing, running and defense at it next week. Either game could be tough. Even though the Rams have put themselves in a perfect position to win, they still have to go out and, well, not blow it.

But it's their turn, clearly, a chance that seldom comes around for any team. The pressure is on them to make the most of it.

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