Rams make final playoff pitch

Sunday, January 2, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Pass-happy Mike Martz made this a meaningful final week for the St. Louis Rams by emphasizing the ground game, starting their Monday night victory over the Eagles with 11 straight running plays.

That out-of-character, conservative formula allowed a beat-up and maligned offensive line to get into the flow early and also eased the burden on quarterback Marc Bulger, who missed the previous two games with a bruised throwing shoulder. It's a proven route to victory for the team, which is 30-0 when it has a 100-yard rusher the last six seasons.

Which is not to say Martz will stick with Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk, who combined for 202 yards of rushing on Monday, in the finale today against the New York Jets in a game that carries playoff implications for both teams. After all, the Rams have 540 pass attempts and 362 runs this season.

"You might see us throw 30 balls in a row," Martz said, only half in jest. "Who knows? It depends on if we're completing them. If we're completing them, we'll keep doing it."

Whatever method gives the Rams (7-8) a chance to make the playoffs will be fine with the coach. A 24-point loss at Arizona two weeks ago potentially looms large for St. Louis, which must win and hope for some help.

The Rams can take the NFC West if the Seahawks lose to the Falcons, and can clinch a wild card berth with a loss by the Vikings at Washington or a highly unlikely Saints-Panthers tie. Players know better than to watch the scoreboard.

"It's not helpless at all," defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson said. "This is all I can think about: getting one win in our house and see what happens after that."

The pressure also is on the Jets (10-5), who can clinch an AFC wild card berth with a win. New York also can advance if Buffalo loses or ties at home against the Steelers or if the Broncos lose or tie at home to the Colts.

The Jets are trying to make it to the playoffs for the third time in four seasons under coach Herman Edwards.

"Obviously, we're going to have to play very, very well to beat the Rams and get in," Edwards said. "Both teams are going to be at their best.

"You find out a lot about your team, you really do."

Edwards already found out a lot when quarterback Chad Pennington and running back Curtis Martin addressed the team after a 23-7 loss to the Patriots last week.

"We performed too bad to allow that to just be something that we say, 'Well, it will be OK,'" Martin said. "We know we can't squander this opportunity before us.

"To play like we played last week, that's what we'd be doing."

Rookie linebacker Jonathan Vilma said the meeting was well-timed.

"Everybody got what they needed off their chest," Vilma said. "It was much-needed, especially at a time like this."

This is an unusual matchup, one team capable of earning a playoff spot with a .500 finish and the other not assured of anything despite a double-digit victory year. The Jets' predicament is reflective of the overall dominance in the AFC this year.

The Jets and Rams also are opposites when it comes to taking care of the ball. New York is plus-14, third best in the NFL, and the Rams are a league-worst minus-21.

Despite Martz's love of the pass, it could come down to a battle of running. Jackson bruised his right knee for the second time in three weeks at the end of a career-best 148-yard game and also is playing with a partially torn right MCL, but returned to practice Thursday and expects to be close to full speed.

Rams players expect the Jets to hammer away with a running game led by Martin, who's second in the AFC with a franchise-record 1,544 yards and 12 touchdowns. The durable Martin will be making his 107th straight regular-season start.

"He's a player that doesn't have a nickname, and he's not a highlight type of player, but he's very, very consistent," Edwards said. "When he goes into the Hall of Fame, people will go 'Yeah, I heard about that guy.'"

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