Rams set pace in title chase

Slowing down St. Louis big challenge for Eagles

feisty Patriots face Steelers

Nfl Playoff Extra

January 21, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - Mobile quarterbacks are in. Strong defense is a prevailing theme. There's even an element of destiny in this year's final four in the NFL, because the New England Patriots are suddenly living a charmed life.

But the bottom line to championship Sunday next week is this: The Super Bowl is the St. Louis Rams' to lose.

That was the exclamation point to the Rams' 45-17 demolition of the proud Green Bay Packers yesterday. They routed the Packers not with that high-scoring offense, but with their high-scoring defense.

Barring unseen developments, the Rams are going to be favored the rest of the way, and the games may not be pretty.

Green Bay may have represented a last chance to block a budding St. Louis dynasty.

The Philadelphia Eagles are up next for the Rams in the NFC championship game after their 33-19 victory over the Chicago Bears on Saturday.

"I don't know if I'm the one to be asking for advice now," Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre said yesterday when he was asked how he'd advise the Eagles.

"The one thing you don't want to do in any game is have turnovers. And when you play a team like St. Louis, which is explosive on offense, you have to find a way to get points and not give up any, not the way we did."

The Packers had eight turnovers and no chance against the Rams.

The AFC final sends those feisty Patriots, who survived a driving snowstorm and a phantom fumble in Saturday's 16-13 overtime win over Oakland, to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers, who ended the Ravens' reign yesterday, 27-10.

Pittsburgh hopes to become only the AFC's second No. 1 seed to reach the Super Bowl in eight years. The Denver Broncos were the other one in 1998.

The Steelers (14-3) had the No. 1-ranked defense and, thanks to an emerging Kordell Stewart at quarterback, the No. 3 offense in the regular season.

The Patriots (13-5) ranked 19th in offense and 24th in defense. And they've got a second-year quarterback who has won 12 of 15 starts since replacing Drew Bledsoe in Week 3. Tom Brady proved he belonged with a 312-yard passing performance against Oakland in tough conditions.

Playing the Steelers' defense is another trial by fire, though. But then, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is certain to dream up a nightmare for Stewart as well.

The NFC final is a rematch of a Week 1 game, when the Eagles took the Rams into overtime in Philadelphia before dropping a 20-17 decision. The Rams held a 17-3 lead in that game and were on the verge of taking a stranglehold when an interception on the goal line allowed the Eagles to get back in the game.

Quarterback Donovan McNabb directed two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to force overtime before the Rams finally pulled it out.

"We let them back in the game," Rams safety Kim Herring said yesterday. "We probably should have beaten them a lot worse than 20-17."

Both teams have changed - and improved - since then. McNabb, who spent most of the season trying to be a pocket quarterback, has become a one-man dynamo with the Eagles with his running and passing.

The Eagles' defense has been tenacious inside its 20-yard line, as well. It has allowed only one offensive touchdown in four playoff games the past two years, and only five offensive touchdowns in nine road games this season. Not surprisingly, the Eagles are 8-1 on the road.

Whether that will be enough when they encounter the Rams' buzz saw is uncertain. If the Rams play the way they played against Green Bay, the Eagles are in for a long day.

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