Bucs have history on side vs. Rams

NFC final is similar to '99 Falcons-Vikings

January 23, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- The highest-scoring team in the league, undefeated at home, is heavily favored in a dome stadium in the NFC championship game today against a team that has never gone to the Super Bowl.

The St. Louis Rams' scoring machine is a two-touchdown choice over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but that doesn't mean the Rams' ticket to the Super Bowl is punched.

The Minnesota Vikings were in almost exactly the same situation last year. They were the highest-scoring team in NFL history (the Rams are the third-highest), and were favored at home by 11 points over an Atlanta Falcons team that had never gone to a Super Bowl.

The Rams will even have the same noise factor in the dome on their side that the Vikings did. But the Falcons stunned the Vikings in overtime to grab their Super Bowl reservations.

The situations aren't exactly the same. The Rams have a better defense than Minnesota did, and Tampa Bay's offense isn't as good as Atlanta's was.

On top of that, quarterback Kurt Warner isn't likely to melt down in the second half the way Randall Cunningham did last year.

That's why a Bucs victory would be even more of an upset than the Falcons' was last year.

The Bucs, though, remember what happened to Minnesota last year and see no reason why they can't do the same thing.

"People had pretty much conceded Minnesota the NFC championship [last year]," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "They were undefeated at home, had lost only one game, and it looked like they couldn't be stopped. That's why you have to go play. We'll be ready to play."

For the Bucs to pull off an upset, they have to play their game and turn it into a low-scoring defensive game.

"For us to win, we're going to have to slow them down. We're going to have to play our best defensive game of the year," Dungy said.

With the Rams trying to earn their second trip to the Super Bowl -- and first since the 1979 season -- here are the 10 pivotal factors in the game.

1. Speed kills

The Rams have the speed to turn this into a track meet. Their receivers are so fast that if the Bucs make one mistake, they can go 70 yards for a touchdown on virtually any play.

If the Rams get a couple of quick touchdowns, it could be a rout because the Bucs aren't a come-from-behind team. They fell behind the Oakland Raiders last month and got blown out, 45-0.

The Bucs, though, have a lot of speed of their own on defense. If they can stuff the run and force the Rams to throw short passes, they can make quick tackles and force the Rams to take a long time to score. They want to make the Rams be patient and see if they get frustrated.

2. Cool hand Kurt

Kurt Warner is the success story of the year and seems immune to pressure. A player who was cut by the Green Bay Packers and played in the Arena League and NFL Europe overcame a lot just to get here.

If the Bucs let him sit back in the pocket and throw, he's likely to pick them apart. He has uncanny accuracy and threw five touchdown passes against the Vikings last week in his first playoff game.

The Bucs, though, don't want to let him sit back in the pocket. They want to take away his deep routes and try to get him off his rhythm by hitting him early and often. Even if they don't sack him, they want to get in his face.

If the Bucs are to win, they've got to force Warner to turn the ball over.

3. The Marshall plan

The Rams got the steal of the year in trading second- and fifth-round picks for Marshall Faulk.

He's a one-man gang, accounting for 2,429 yards and 12 touchdowns and 37 percent of the Rams' offense. He became the second player in NFL history to account for 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same year.

If the Bucs take away the Rams' long game with their two-deep zone, Warner can dump the ball off to Faulk and let him run. He's dangerous in the open field.

4. Run to daylight

The Rams were the top-ranked defense against the run this season, giving up fewer yards than any other team on the ground.

The Bucs think that is a misleading statistic because teams fell behind the Rams and were forced to throw the ball.

If they can avoid falling way behind, they think they can pound away at the Rams' defense and wear it down with Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn sharing the running duties.

The Bucs not only like to run the ball, but they also need to run against the Rams to control the ball and take time off the clock. The Rams score so fast that time of possession isn't important to them. The Bucs need to keep the ball away from them.

The Bucs don't have an explosive running game. They didn't have a run for more than 33 yards and ranked 25th in rushing. What they do is stick with the run. They ran 502 times this season; only three teams ran it more.

5. The rookie quarterback

It's no secret that no rookie quarterback has taken his team to the Super Bowl.

But that doesn't faze Shaun King. Nothing seems to faze him. Last week against Washington, he became the first rookie quarterback to win a playoff game since Pat Haden in 1976.

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