More's at stake in Super rematch

Eight defensive backs lifted Titans in Week 8, handed Rams 1st loss

January 24, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Forget about the offensive orgy. Defense returned to the NFL playoffs yesterday, knocking out the Jacksonville Jaguars and pushing the St. Louis Rams to the brink of upset.

Super Bowl XXXIV in six days will be the Relocation Rematch. The wild-card Tennessee Titans against the prohibitive favorite, the Rams. Two franchises that were swept up in the relocation move of the '90s after finding apathy and acrimony in Houston and Los Angeles.

Two teams that met in Week 8.

The Titans won in Nashville, 24-21, dealing the Rams their first loss of the season. Now they'll play again at Atlanta's Georgia Dome for much bigger stakes.

The Titans (16-3), only the sixth wild card in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl, muzzled the Jaguars' offensive weapons in a 33-14 rout in the AFC championship game at ALLTEL Stadium.

St. Louis (15-3) won the NFC championship game at the Trans World Dome by surviving the tenacious Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a shocking 11-6 defensive struggle.

What the NFC score showed is that Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, the league's MVP, can be controlled, if not necessarily beaten, in the klieg lights of the postseason by a legitimate defensive force.

Tennessee may have the secret, too. The Titans, playing after a bye week, used eight defensive backs against the Rams' multiple-threat offense on Oct. 31. Warner produced solid numbers -- completing 29 of 46 passes for 328 yards and three touchdowns -- but lost two fumbles deep in his territory that helped Tennessee to a 21-0 lead.

The Rams rallied, finished with 415 total yards, but lost when kicker Jeff Wilkins missed a potential tying 38-yard field goal in the final seconds.

The Super Bowl should be so exciting.

The Titans, however, are not likely to re-create the raucous environment they enjoyed at Adelphia Coliseum. The Rams were flagged for nine false start penalties -- six against tackle Fred Miller.

Tennessee blitzed the Rams on nearly half their offensive snaps, sacking Warner six times. Asked later if Warner was rattled by the pass rush, defensive end Jevon Kearse said, "Extremely."

Employing the extra defensive backs enabled the Titans to cover Rams running back Marshall Faulk with someone other than a slower linebacker. That's the mismatch the Rams love to exploit.

Even covered by a defensive back -- often Steve Jackson -- Faulk still caught six passes for 94 yards and rushed for 90 more.

In last week's divisional playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts, the Titans used a similar strategy. They put nickel back Donald Mitchell on running back Edgerrin James with similar success.

Yesterday, Tennessee's defense shut down the Jaguars' high-powered offense without the benefit of crowd noise. The Titans used six turnovers, instead, including four in a 23-0 second-half blitz.

The Rams figure to have a big advantage playing indoors again on a fast track. The Titans played in a dome only once this season, and barely beat the New Orleans Saints, 24-21.

The matchup of quarterbacks -- Warner against Tennessee's Steve McNair -- also favors St. Louis. But the coaching matchup may not. Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, 3-0 in his first playoff season, has proved himself to be innovative and creative this season -- outside of his conservative offense, anyway.

Dick Vermeil, meanwhile, returns to the Super Bowl after a 19-year absence. In the 1980 season, he took his upstart Philadelphia Eagles into Super Bowl XV in New Orleans, and lost decisively to the Oakland Raiders, 27-10.

Burnout followed not long after.

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