What We Learned
Three things we know after the Rams' 27-14 winPosted: Sunday December 09, 2001 9:33 PM
Updated: Sunday December 09, 2001 11:18 PM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
ST. LOUIS -- Striking early and often enough, St. Louis put down San Francisco's challenge to its NFC West supremacy Sunday, knocking off the 49ers 27-14 in a game that really wasn't that close. Here are three observations from the game:
1. The Rams' passing attack is so devastating because their extra wide receivers are way better than almost everybody's extra cornerbacks. It's all about the matchups.
The 49ers found out once again Sunday. All in all, San Francisco defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. felt pretty good about his unit's performance against the Rams. After letting St. Louis drive to two first-quarter touchdowns, the 49ers surrendered just one more touchdown and a pair of field goals. Mora considered it something of a triumph that his guys hung tough and didn't allow Kurt Warner and friends to blow them out of the building.
But Mora knows this much: When the Rams put third wide receiver Ricky Proehl on the field in three-receiver sets, he was at a distinct disadvantage having to counter with rookie cornerback Rashad Holman, his team's sixth-round pick.
Proehl, a polished veteran, finished with a game-high six catches for 109 yards, including a 15-yard first-quarter touchdown. It was his 19th career 100-yard game, but first since December 1998. Entering Sunday, Proehl ranked only sixth among the receiver-rich Rams, with 23 catches for 331 yards and one touchdown.
Holman has a chance to be a decent player and has played well for the 49ers. But he moved up from the team's dime to nickel corner because veteran Anthony Parker is injured. That means when the Rams had Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Proehl (who combined for 219 yards on 14 catches) on the field, the 49ers matched up with two second-year cornerbacks -- starters Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster -- and a rookie (Holman).
Advantage, St. Louis. All day long. And all season long unless that day's opponent has the kind of cornerback depth that very few teams possess.
2. The 49ers talked confidently after the game of seeing the Rams again in the postseason. But they'll be lucky if that scenario comes to pass.
At 9-3, San Francisco remains a mortal lock to make the playoffs. But given the difficulty of the final fourth of their schedule, the 49ers might have to win a pair of playoff games before even getting the privilege of returning to St. Louis.
Here's why: The Rams (10-2) are in the driver's seat for NFC home field advantage, and they have just one more difficult game remaining: next Monday night at New Orleans (7-5). After that test, St. Louis finishes with a road game at Carolina and home games against Indianapolis and Atlanta. Let's assume that will translate into the nothing worse than the NFC's second seed.
But looking at San Francisco, Sunday's loss dropped it to the NFC's fifth seed, behind division leaders St. Louis, Green Bay and Philadelphia, as well as No. 4-seeded Chicago, which beat the Niners head-to-head at Soldier Field.
If form holds, the 49ers would be on the road for the wild-card round, probably at Chicago in the dead of January. They'd have to win there, then win on the road in the division round in order to get a likely rematch with their division rivals in the NFC title game.
And San Francisco's remaining regular-season schedule is no picnic. The 49ers are home against Miami and Philadelphia the next two weeks, then finish at Dallas and at New Orleans. Three of those opponents have playoff designs and should be difficult tests.
Given the unpredictability of the NFL in 2001, you can't rule anything out. But if the 49ers indeed see the Rams once again, here's betting that it'll be next season before it happens.
3. It has been said that the Rams' vaunted home field advantage is a thing of the past. Don't believe it.
True, St. Louis entered Sunday looking mortal under the big top. The Rams had dropped two of their past three home games, and probably should have lost a third -- a 15-14 squeaker against the New York Giants. Over the past two seasons, St. Louis was a ho-hum 4-5 in the dome before Sunday.
But that's a misleading statistic in that three of those losses -- all coming late last year -- were with Trent Green at quarterback. Green is currently losing games outside for cross-state rival Kansas City, while Kurt Warner is healthy again in St. Louis.
With the win against San Francisco, Warner improved his career record in his home dome to 19-2, which included a 17-0 streak to start things off. Yes, he's just 2-2 in his last four home starts, but turnovers (a combined 13) led to those losses, to New Orleans and Tampa Bay. It's simple: If the Rams avoid a torrent of turnovers, they win.
And while this NFL season has featured a ton of success for road teams (85-88 going into the weekend, .491), the playoffs are a different story. Home field advantage is real in the postseason, and very few teams have a better vibe in their domain than do Warner and the Rams.
Sunday was a key test of the dome's usefulness. The first-place showdown with the 49ers was by far St. Louis' biggest game of the season, and set up the Rams for everything they hope to accomplish this year. And they used their home field advantage superbly in an effort to ensure they stay home come playoff time.
If you don't believe us, ask any team in the NFC -- with the possible exception of New Orleans -- which stadium they're hoping to avoid come January? The Dome at America's Center will be atop the list.