Rams' arsenal overwhelms Vikings

By Barry Wilner Associated Press Published:

ST. LOUIS - There's this one problem with the St. Louis Rams offense: Not enough footballs to go around. If the Rams could stretch NFL rules, they'd gladly find a way to get footballs in the hands of Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Tony Horne and Kurt Warner at the same time. Then they'd be scoring in triple figures with regularity. As it is, they just might reach the 100-point mark before this charmed season is over. They got almost halfway there in Sunday's 49-37 defeat of the Minnesota Vikings in the first home playoff game in the city's 33-season history. "I think we have done that all year," league MVP Warner said after throwing for five touchdowns and 391 yards in a near-perfect performance. "We're not just one-dimensional or two-dimensional. It's unreal how many weapons we have to beat you." They'll take those weapons into next Sunday's NFC championship game against Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers will bring a sound defense to the noisy Trans World Dome. But Warner isn't sure even the stingy Bucs can handle the NFL's top offense. "I don't think anybody can stop this offense," Warner said. "I haven't seen a defense do it so far. People are going to have to prove it to me for me to believe it." The Vikings (11-7) certainly couldn't prove it. They got Gary Anderson's 31-yard field goal on their opening drive, which merely wetted the Rams' appetite. St. Louis (14-3) immediately sent Bruce on a deep post pattern. He broke free at midfield, where Warner hit him perfectly, and Bruce headed to the end zone for a 77-yard touchdown. "To tell you the truth, I was thinking about it for a day," Warner said of the decision to open up with a deep pass. "It was great to get us out of the chute quickly." They weren't nearly done. Faulk, the Offensive Player of the Year, took a short pass and rambled 41 yards for another touchdown to make it 14-3. "The linebackers were thinking, 'Get back, get back,' and we play-action and throw a screen," he said. "It was set up great." And Minnesota was set up for the rout. But something unusual happened: The Rams began making mistakes. Warner was intercepted at the Minnesota 4 by Jimmy Hitchcock and the Vikings marched 96 yards. Jeff George, who would finish 29-for-50 for 424 yards _ third in playoff history, but highest in a non-overtime game _ and four touchdowns, hit Jake Reed for 41 yards on third-and-14. All-Pro receiver Cris Carter scored on a 22-yard pass over double-coverage. When Faulk couldn't grasp a handoff from Warner at the Vikings 47, Robert Griffith recovered. Randy Moss went 31 yards with a reception before Leroy Hoard scored from the 4. At halftime, the Vikings led 17-14 and the dome-record crowd of 66,194 wasn't quite in full throat. Not to worry. The fans reached a deafening level a scant 18 seconds into the second half. Horne raced 95 yards down the left sideline with the third-quarter kickoff for the first such TD runback in Rams playoff history. "It was good timing," said Horne, who had two regular-season TDs on kickoff returns. "Every time we touch the field, we expect something good like that to happen. Everybody is looking for it to go to the house." It made the house sound far louder than it did during a pregame fireworks display _ exactly what the Vikings didn't need. "We thought the crowd was out of it at that time," George said, "and we felt we had them right where we wanted them. But they stepped up." They kept stepping up _ and all over the Minnesota defense. St. Louis, which averaged 35 points at home in going 8-0 this season, scored that many in a row before three late Vikings touchdowns padded George's stats. Faulk scored on a 1-yard run and Warner threw TD passes to backup tight end Jeff Robinson (13 yards), center Ryan Tucker on a tackle-eligible play (1) and tight end Roland Williams (2). It took them just over 20 minutes to rack up the five touchdowns. "How we played in the third quarter is about as well as you can play," said Dick Vermeil, the NFL Coach of the Year. Warner, whose storybook season has taken him from the Arena League and NFL Europe to become the only quarterback other than Dan Marino with 40 TD passes in a season, finished 27-for-33. He set team playoff records for yards passing and TD throws. The Vikings' three touchdowns in the final five minutes led to an NFL playoff record of 815 yards passing for George and Warner. They surpassed a 1981 San Diego-Miami mark set in an overtime game. St. Louis was playing its first playoff game at home after being without an NFL team for seven years until the Rams moved there from Los Angeles in 1995. The Cardinals left St. Louis after the 1987 season. "Hopefully we painted a glaring picture that we really don't have any weaknesses," Vermeil said, noting there was even more available. "We couldn't call everything in the game plan if we played three weeks in a row." They only need two more weeks like this to be Super Bowl champions.

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