Posted: Sunday December 19, 1999 06:17 PM
ST. LOUIS (Ticker) -- The St. Louis Rams needed only 14 games to prove they are the best team in the NFC.
The Rams' remarkable turnaround came full circle with a 31-10 victory over the New York Giants, giving St. Louis home-field advantage through the conference playoffs and an eight-game winning streak.
"We came into the game and our theme all week with the players was, We really don't know how good we are and how good we can be," Rams coach Dick Vermeil said. "I think today we found out that we are a pretty good football team.
"It's really exciting to bring at least one playoff game home to St. Louis. St. Louis deserves something like this."
The Rams (12-2) got 319 yards and two touchdowns from Kurt Warner, who continues to strengthen his position as the top candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player. Warner, who was discovered in the Arena League, completed 18-of-32 passes for 319 yards and was not intercepted against the Giants' patchwork secondary. He has 36 touchdown passes this season, tying him for the fifth-best single-season total in league history.
New York again started journeyman Jeremy Lincoln and former practice squad player Emmanuel McDaniel at the cornerback positions. Regular right cornerback Jason Sehorn is out for the rest of the season with a broken fibula and left corner Phillippi Sparks is sidelined with a groin injury.
The Giants (7-7) generated little offense against the tough St.
Louis defense and became the first team with a record above .500 to lose to the Rams. Kerry Collins had a rough afternoon, throwing two passes that were intercepted and returned for touchdowns.
The Rams' seven defensive touchdowns are one better than the team record set in 1978, the last time the Rams won 12 games in a season. This is the fourth time in team history the Rams have won 12 games and they matched the mark in front of a club-record crowd of 66,065.
Collins was 21-of-37 for 273 yards for the Giants, who had been 9-0 in December games under coach Jim Fassel. Despite the defeat, the Giants remain in the thick of the playoff race in the NFC.
After hosting Minnesota next week, the Giants close the season at Dallas on January 2. It appears New York will need to win both of those games to keep alive its postseason aspirations.
"We did not play good enough," Fassel said. "Not taking away from them, we made too many mistakes. You can't come into this place and do anything but be at the top of your game. This game's over, it's done, we've got to learn from it. Tomorrow, when they come in, we're not even going to look at the tape.
We'll go on to Minnesota and that's it."
"We need to put it behind us," Giants linebacker Jessie Armstead said. "We need to focus on Minnesota. If we don't get Minnesota, the other (at Dallas) doesn't count."
Warner has thrown for 300 or more yards in eight games this season, a franchise record. He figures to join a slew of teammates when the Pro Bowl teams are named this week, with running back Marshall Faulk, wide receiver Isaac Bruce left tackle Orlando Pace and defensive end Kevin Carter virtual locks to be named.
"It's nice to do it at home," Warner said of clinching the conference. "It's good to know that the games we play in January are going to be played here."
Pace was ejected from the game for a late hit in the second quarter, but it hindered the St. Louis offense little. Faulk caught six passes for 97 yards and carried 16 times for 68.
Az-Zahir Hakim caught three passes for 79 yards and scored two touchdowns.
Amani Toomer became the first Giant to break the 1,000-yard receiving mark in a season since Lionel Manuel in 1988. Toomer caught nine passes for 162 yards and has 1,049 yards for the season.
The Rams grabbed a 10-0 lead when Jeff Wilkins kicked a 47-yard field goal in the first quarter and Warner hit Hakim with a three-yard scoring pass in the second.
Cary Blanchard got the Giants within 10-3 with a 23-yard field goal with just over 10 minutes left in the third quarter, but the game turned around less than five minutes later.
Collins and the Giants had the ball down seven points when his pass was picked off by safety Devin Bush, who returned it 45 yards for a touchdown and a 17-3 lead.
"If you put pressure on any quarterback, they are going to have trouble," Bush said. "I was able to get in the interception and return it for a touchdown. I got a good jump on it. I wanted the end zone bad. I wasn't going to let them tackle me."
"We have so many people who can make plays," Vermeil said. "We brought Devin Bush here because we thought he could make plays like that."
Just 62 seconds into the fourth quarter, Warner hit Hakim with a screen pass and the speedy receiver exploded to turn it into a 65-yard touchdown for a 24-3 lead.
"When they blitz us, it's one of those things," Warner explained. "You've got guys like Az, Torry (Holt), Ike (Bruce) and Marshall (Faulk). When you get them one-on-one, we can do that all the time. Numerous times this year, when teams try to blitz us they think that's the way to get after us. But we make one person miss and we score a touchdown."
Collins was picked off by Mike Jones midway through the quarter and the linebacker returned it 22 yards for a score.
"The first one was a timing route; the play was there. The second one, the guy was there and I just made a bad decision," Collins said. "I felt we had a good game plan. To go out and not get the job done, I'm very disappointed. We need to put this behind us. We've still got two games to go."
The Giants added a touchdown with 4:48 left, when Collins hit Ike Hilliard for a seven-yard score.
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