A wild-card team, Rams appear to be hitting stride

Monday, January 10, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- The confounding Rams are suddenly on a roll. They're the first .500 team to win a playoff game and they're on a three-game winning streak, all against playoff teams.

"The last three weeks this is a different team than the previous 14 weeks," coach Mike Martz said. "This is kind of who I think we are."

The Rams were among the preseason Super Bowl favorites before sneaking into the postseason with an 8-8 record. Along the way they were bogged down by injuries most damaging in the offensive line, and infighting such as Martz calling out the entire team after an 18-point loss to the Patriots.

Then there was the yearlong struggle to grasp the scheme of new defensive coordinator Larry Marmie and the woeful special teams that weekly tinkering was unable to fix.

"We have had a lot of turmoil," said tight end Cam Cleeland, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass Saturday with 2:11 left. "A soap opera team."

Martz thought St. Louis, a 12-4 division champion last year, would be up to speed by midseason. Instead it finally came together in weeks 15 and 16 when the Rams were impressive in victories over the Eagles, who rested most of their key performers for the playoffs, and the Jets.

"Here we are," Martz said. "At this point, only the strong survive."

Better late than never for the Rams, who'll play Atlanta on Saturday in the divisional round after completing a three-game sweep of the NFC West champion Seahawks.

"Every week now for three weeks it's been do or die," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "With the way that everyone is playing, it's fun again. It wasn't there for a while."

The Rams became the first St. Louis NFL team to win a road playoff game. The Cardinals didn't do it in 28 seasons before moving to Phoenix in 1988, and the Rams didn't do it in their first nine seasons after moving from Anaheim, Calif.

Heading into the second round, the confidence is growing.

Bulger threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns, the fast-improving defense held Shaun Alexander to 40 yards on 15 carries, and special teams bolstered by the addition of backup Mike Furrey were no longer a liability. Furrey, who had been inactive the previous seven games, got a game ball.

"You are going to see an even better team next week," Cleeland said. "This was a complete and utter team victory."

Bulger puts little stock in his first career playoff victory, partly because of what lies ahead.

"This isn't the end of the season," Bulger said. "We're just to the point where we were last year. Whoever we play is going to be tough, but it's nice that we're playing our best football."

The Rams got through the Seahawks game with a minimum of injuries. Offensive guard Tom Nutten left in the fourth quarter after aggravating a left knee injury, but Martz expects him to play next week, and running back Steven Jackson was limited by a rib injury.

"We're healthy," Martz said. "Tommy just banged his knee a little bit. We probably will have him next week, so we came out of this clean."

They have a more dangerous team, too. Second-year player Kevin Curtis caught four passes for 107 yards, his first career 100-yard game, and he and Sean McDonald are becoming effective complements to the team's established duo of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.

Bulger noted that the Rams that went to two Super Bowls in three seasons from 1999 to 2001 had that kind of diversity with the likes of Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl diverting attention.

"You can't double everyone," Bulger said. "I think we're starting to get that matchup with the third and fourth guy on safeties and linebackers."

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