Rams, Titans eye surprise prize

Newly elite clubs meet as unlikely matchup caps season of change

January 30, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- If this NFL season is about anything, it is about obscure players emerging from the shadows, about failed franchises rising from the ashes.

It's about MVP quarterback Kurt Warner and the upstart St. Louis Rams. It's about destiny and the tenacious Tennessee Titans.

The two biggest surprises of the 1999 season square off tonight in Super Bowl XXXIV at the Georgia Dome, and there couldn't be a more perfect ending to an imperfect season.

The losingest team of the 1990s coming into the season is playing for the chance to be the first champion of the 2000s. The Rams went 15-3 and won the NFC championship behind Warner's storybook season.

The team that spent the past four seasons playing in four different home stadiums, that was on an 8-8 treadmill the previous three years, finally found a home in Nashville. The Titans went 16-3 and became only the sixth wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl, winning the AFC championship.

In what has been billed as the Relocation Bowl, the Super Bowl pits two franchises that had to relocate before they found success.

It's also a rematch of Tennessee's 24-21 victory over the Rams in Week 8. That was St. Louis' first defeat of the year.

"We weren't the better team on the football field at that time, that day," said Rams coach Dick Vermeil. "We lost to Tennessee in Tennessee. Now we have an opportunity to play for the whole works, the world championship right here in Atlanta and find out if that was a fluke, or if we are the better team."

Only in the NFL. Only in the year 2000. Here are 10 pivotal factors that could decide today's game.

1. The Marshall plan

Tennessee's biggest game-plan decision -- and toughest matchup -- is how to stop Marshall Faulk, a lightning rod at running back for the Rams. Do the Titans assign one of their quick linebackers to the job? Or spy on Faulk with a defensive back?

The multiple formations and motion offense the Rams run make it tough to avoid mismatches. That's why the Titans opted for seven- and eight-defensive back schemes in their Oct. 31 victory over the Rams. Safety Blaine Bishop spent much of the game playing linebacker.

That worked to a degree. Faulk had 184 total yards and one touchdown, but the Titans won. They know they have to do a better job this time around.

2. Thin blue line

To play seven or eight defensive backs means they must have seven or eight competent backs. The Titans suffered a critical loss last week when safety Marcus Robertson broke his left ankle in the second quarter of the AFC championship game.

That means Anthony Dorsett -- son of Hall of Fame running back Tony -- will start his second NFL game at free safety. He can't possibly replace the experience of Robertson, a nine-year veteran. And it shrinks the options for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Complicating matters, left cornerback Denard Walker wore a bull's eye on his uniform last week, taking the brunt of the Jacksonville Jaguars' passing game.

3. Warner's ascension

There was no stopping Warner this season. A quarterback who came out of nowhere to lead the lowly Rams to the Super Bowl is a bizarre story line to the NFL's wildest fantasy. But Warner, with 41 touchdown passes and 4,353 passing yards this season, is no fantasy.

His accuracy and his rifle arm could be the deciding factors against a secondary that will be stretched to its limits. He threw three interceptions in the narrow NFC championship victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Can he have two bad games in a row?

4. Grounding McNair

Only once this season have the Titans asked McNair to win a game with his arm. That was the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. If the Titans are going to stay within reach of the Rams today, they will need a big passing game from McNair.

He is capable. He threw for 341 yards in Week 1, and 291 in a Week 16 win at Jacksonville. But through most of the postseason, he has short-armed his passes and failed to find receivers downfield. This is one game McNair can't win with his feet.

5. Fast-track city

Mike Martz, St. Louis' offensive coordinator, said last week that he thinks the Rams are faster on grass than on artificial turf. A lot of Rams would disagree. This is why the Rams wanted home-field advantage, why they went undefeated at home this season.

Furthermore, the Titans are an outdoor team. They haven't played more than one regular-season game in a dome since 1996, and since Jeff Fisher became coach in midseason of 1994, they are only 3-4 inside.

6. Freak-out Fred

Much has been made of Tennessee's precocious defensive end, Jevon Kearse, eating up Rams right tackle Fred Miller in Week 8. "The Freak," as Kearse is affectionately called, had a superb game. But there were extenuating circumstances.

For one, the game was at Tennessee's raucous Adelphia Coliseum. The crowd was so deafening that the Rams charged afterward that the Titans piped in artificial noise. Miller was called for six false starts and two holding penalties, and was benched at one point.

7. Buddy's influence

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