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Rams work overtime to capture opener
PHILADELPHIA -- The St. Louis Rams' maligned defense kept them in the game. Their prolific offense won it.
Isaac Bruce caught passes of 20 and 27 yards on the final drive, and Jeff Wilkins kicked a 26-yard field goal with 7:08 left in overtime, lifting St. Louis to a 20-17 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
"To be able to come into this environment, a playoff environment against a team that went deep last year and will go deep this year and come out with a win, that's pretty dramatic," Rams coach Mike Martz said.
St. Louis, which allowed a league-worst 471 points (29 per game) last year, overhauled its defense, starting eight new players. The Rams shut down Donovan McNabb, the NFL MVP runnerup, until the fourth quarter.
McNabb had 312 yards passing, two touchdowns and one interception. He gained 41 of his team-high 48 yards rushing in the fourth.
Kurt Warner passed for 308 yards, one TD and had two interceptions; and Marshall Faulk, the league's MVP, had 72 yards rushing and one TD.
After a slow start, McNabb rallied the Eagles into a 17-17 tie with two touchdown passes to Cecil Martin in the final 11 minutes. The first score -- a 1-yard pass on fourth-and-1 -- came on a reversed call by replacement officials.
Martin was stopped short of the end zone. But referee Al Hynes ruled the ball touched the goal plane after watching the replay. The 98-yard drive came after Troy Vincent intercepted Warner's pass that deflected off fullback James Hodgins' hands.
McNabb's 8-yard TD pass to Martin tied it at 17 with 3:59 left. Na Brown kept the drive going with an 18-yard catch on third-and-5.
"Not to take anything away from the Rams, but we had opportunities and we just didn't take advantage," McNabb said.
Aveion Cason fumbled the ensuing kickoff, but at least three Eagles failed to fall on the ball, allowing St. Louis to recover at the 5.
"It was like dominoes out there. That's just wrong," Eagles coach Andy Reid said.
Damon Moore intercepted Warner on a deep pass, giving the Eagles a chance to win it in regulation. But McNabb was sacked at midfield on the final play, sending it to overtime.
Defense holds in OT
The Eagles got the kickoff to start the extra period, but St. Louis forced a punt, giving Warner and company the ball at their 36.
"We were able to go to overtime, find out what we're made of," Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams said. "You can't create those situations in practice. You find out how resilient you are."
Bruce, who had just two catches before the last drive, caught a 20-yard pass that move the ball past midfield and added a 27-yarder on second-and-20 that put Rams in field-goal range.
"When you need a guy, he's always there," Martz said.
St. Louis took a 7-0 lead just 51 seconds into the game on a 7-yard run by Faulk. The Rams started the drive at Philadelphia's 12 after McNabb and center Hank Fraley, playing his first game, fumbled the exchange on the opening snap.
"I was fired up and so was Hank," McNabb said. "I pulled out too early. I take full blame for that."
Warner's 2-yard TD pass to Ernie Conwell made it 14-3 with 26 seconds left in the first half. Rookie safety Adam Archuleta recovered a fumble by Chad Lewis and returned it 24 yards to set up a short drive. Archuleta also fumbled, but cornerback Aeneas Williams fell on it at Philadelphia's 30.
The Rams missed making a repeat trip to the Super Bowl last year because of their horrific defense. But drastic steps were taken to improve it.
Lovie Smith came in as the new defensive coordinator, patterned his system after Tampa Bay's bend-but-don't-break strategy, and it made a difference.
"The end of the game is something we really needed to see," Smith said.
NOTES: Martin hadn't scored in his first two seasons in the NFL. ... Rams safety Matt Bowen fractured his right foot and will be out at least six weeks. ... Eagles WR Todd Pinkston had seven catches for 99 yards, both career-highs. ... Eagles RB Duce Staley, playing his first game since going down with a season-ending foot injury last Oct. 1, had 9 yards rushing on nine carries.