ST. LOUIS -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' swarming defense gave up just one big play in the NFC championship game yesterday.
It turned out to be one too many.
With the tenacious Bucs, the biggest underdogs in the history of the NFC title game, holding onto a one-point lead, quarterback Kurt Warner fired a 30-yard touchdown pass to veteran Ricky Proehl with 4: 44 left to give the St. Louis Rams an 11-6 victory and a berth in Super Bowl XXXIV next Sunday in Atlanta's Georgia Dome against the Tennessee Titans.
Warner, who piloted the third-highest scoring offense in NFL history and threw five touchdown passes last week against the Minnesota Vikings, was handcuffed virtually the whole game by the Tampa Bay defense and threw three interceptions.
He made one completion of more than 22 yards -- the 30-yarder to Proehl -- and that was enough to win.
"It was a play that was designed to go to Marshall [Faulk] on the other side of the field," Warner said.
But Warner and Proehl, who hadn't caught a touchdown pass all year and was planning to run an 18-yard out, had a sight adjustment to the fade route down the left sideline if the Bucs blitzed a safety.
"We didn't have enough guys to pick up all those guys on the back side so Ricky ran a go route and he went up and made a great play," Warner said.
Proehl, who beat cornerback Brian Kelly, said, "The ball was underthrown a little bit and he [Kelly] had good coverage. I just went up for the ball and tried to screen him off. We work on it every day in practice. I try to keep my body between the ball and the defender. When I came down, his hand was in there trying to get it out and I was able to hold onto it."
Proehl had played nine years on four teams without ever enjoying a winning season and now he's heading to the Super Bowl.
Proehl, who took a victory lap around the Trans World Dome holding up the George Halas Trophy, said, "It felt great. For 10 years you play in the league and you watch other guys do that and celebrate the NFC championship. I was just numb. I was living a dream."
It could have turned into a nightmare for the Rams if it hadn't been for a couple of ill-timed mistakes in the fourth quarter by Tampa Bay quarterback Shaun King, who was trying to become the first rookie ever to take his team to the Super Bowl.
In the past, the Bucs have been criticized for being too conservative and trying to win the game with their defense. As it turned out, they probably weren't conservative enough this time.
The Bucs just wouldn't let the Rams make any big plays. The Rams had a 16-play drive in the first period that stalled and ended up with a field goal. They had a 12-play drive in the third period that ended with an interception. That was 28 snaps by the Rams and just three points. The Bucs took away the deep pass with their cover two zone and swarmed to the ball when the Rams threw underneath, turning four completions into lost yardage. They stuffed the run as Faulk ran 17 times for 44 yards.
The Bucs seemed content to let the defense win it.
For example, when they had a third-and-seven at the Tampa 26 near the end of the third period, they ran the ball and punted.
That worked as Hardy Nickerson picked off Warner for the third time and returned it to the St. Louis 42.
But the Buccaneers then abandoned their conservative game plan despite a 6-5 lead.
Instead of running the ball on first down, the Bucs called a pass and the ball slipped out of King's hand and he recovered it for a 5-yard loss. The Bucs argued his hand had moved forward and called for instant replay, but the referee upheld the call on the field.
On fourth-and-three at the St. Louis 35, Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy passed up a 52-yard field-goal attempt. King passed for a first down to Warrick Dunn, but he didn't get the play off in time and the Bucs were called for delay of game and moved back 5 yards and the Bucs punted.
The Rams were forced to punt again and the Bucs took over at the St. Louis 49.
They again called for a pass on first down and King was thrown for a 6-yard loss. After Dunn ran for 5 yards, King threw an errant pass on third down that Dre' Bly intercepted.
If the Bucs had just run the ball and punted, they'd probably be in the Super Bowl with the way their defense was playing.
"We talked about running it," Dungy said. "We talked about going with another screen. We thought we had a pretty safe pass."
As it turned out, after the Rams went 47 yards in six plays following the turnover to take their 11-6 lead, King then put together his best drive and had a first down on the St. Louis 22 with 1: 25 left.
After he was sacked for a 13-yard loss, King appeared to throw a completion to Bert Emanuel to the 23.