St. Louis' defense keys another postseason victoryPosted: Sunday January 27, 2002 7:58 PM
Updated: Sunday January 27, 2002 9:30 PM
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The St. Louis Rams' rebuilt defense, not the glamour boys on offense, is responsible for getting the team to another Super Bowl.
The Rams shut out the Philadelphia Eagles for most of the second half of the NFC Championship Game Sunday, propelling St. Louis to its second Super Bowl in three years with a 29-24 victory.
"They put it in our hands," defensive end Leonard Little said. "And we won the game for them."
The defenders deserved equal billing with the league's top offense after making the Eagles go three-and-out on their first three series of the second half.
"We like to think we just didn't make the mistakes," defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said. "We played our defense the way it was supposed to have been played in the first half."
And when the game was on the line, the defense stiffened.
On the Eagles' last drive, All-Pro cornerback Aeneas Williams broke up Donovan McNabb's third-and-7 pass for Freddie Mitchell. Then, on fourth down, Williams made his sixth career playoff interception to clinch the victory.
"We knew McNabb was capable of buying himself time with his legs," Williams said. "But this time we knew he had to throw it and I just wanted to be close to my receiver."
Teammates were happy it was Williams, acquired on draft day after 10 frustrating years in Arizona, who finished off the Eagles.
"If anybody deserved to make a play to win the game for us, it was him," middle linebacker London Fletcher said. "He's been stuck in futility for so many years."
The Rams also sacked the elusive McNabb three times.
Last week, St. Louis intercepted six passes by Brett Favre and returned three of them for touchdowns, two by Williams. The Rams' defense outscored the Packers' offense in a 45-17 rout.
While the Eagles were being shut down, the Rams' offense had a chance to get untracked. St. Louis trailed at the half for only the third time all season, but took the lead on a 1-yard run by Marshall Faulk in the third quarter and moved ahead 29-17 on another 1-yarder by Faulk with 5:38 to play.
With about eight minutes to go, the Eagles had run only nine offensive plays in the second half. That was a marked change from the first half, when they rolled up 182 total yards and took the lead on a 12-yard pass from McNabb to Todd Pinkston with 46 seconds left.
The Rams' defense gave a big assist to a noisy sellout crowd that helped throw the Eagles off their game. The team also did its part by pumping up the volume with rock music while Philadelphia was in the huddle.
"You can't overstate that," tackle Tyoka Jackson said. "I'm watching the guys and they can't even hear McNabb in the huddle, and they couldn't hear the snap count."
The Eagles made it interesting, driving 51 yards in nine plays, capped by a 1-yard run by McNabb with 2:56 to go to make it 29-24.
The Rams rebuilt their defense after allowing 471 points last year, seventh-most in NFL history and the most ever by a playoff team. Besides replacing eight starters, St. Louis hired Smith and a new defensive staff.
The defense was responsible for setting up the game's first score, a 5-yard pass from Kurt Warner to Isaac Bruce. On the first play, Chido Ahanotu tipped McNabb's pass for an incompletion. On the second, Little forced a fumble that gave the Rams possession at the Philadelphia 21.
The biggest accomplishment for the offense was keeping Warner healthy. The line held even though All-Pro offensive tackle Orlando Pace was knocked out for a series with a sprained ligament when he got sandwiched between two defenders on a pass play.
"They said the replay looked a lot worse than it actually was," Pace said. "There's nothing in the world that will keep me out next week."