Posted: Sunday January 16, 2000 06:45 PM
ST. LOUIS (Ticker) -- Kurt Warner experienced no stage fright on the playoff stage. Instead, the NFL's MVP continued his magical season with yet another flawless perfomance.
Warner completed 27-of-33 passes for 391 yards and five touchdowns to lead the St. Louis Rams to a 49-37 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the first-ever playoff game at St. Louis.
"I'm just doing the same thing I've been doing all year," Warner said. "I've got more work to do, I'm not done yet. I got bigger things I want to fulfill."
The win put the Rams (14-3) in the NFC championship game for the first time since the 1989 season, the last year they made the playoffs. St. Louis will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday.
"So much for not having much experience in the playoffs," said Rams coach Dick Vermeil. "John Wooden (former UCLA basketball coach) told me a long time ago that talent is more important than experience. We have a lot of talent on this football team, and I expect it to win."
Warner, a virtual unknown before this season and the most improbable MVP in league history, engineered St. Louis' fast-break offense with precision against the league's 30th-ranked pass defense, setting franchise postseason records for yardage and touchdowns.
He hit five different players -- Isaac Bruce, running back Marshall Faulk, offensive lineman Ryan Tucker and tight ends Jeff Robinson and Roland Williams -- with touchdown passes.
"He's a very good player," Vikings coach Dennis Green said of Warner. "He threw the ball very well. He made a lot of big plays."
After stints in the Arena League and NFL Europe, the 28-year-old Warner was given the starting job when free agent signee Trent Green suffered torn knee ligaments in the preseason. He went on to become the second quarterback in NFL history to throw as many as 40 touchdowns in a season (41), recorded nine 300-yard passing games, threw for 4,353 yards and had a quarterback rating of 109.2.
The question of whether that would continue in the playoffs was answered quickly when Warner hit Bruce for a 77-yard TD on St. Louis' first play from scrimmage after Gary Anderson kicked a 31-yard field goal for Minnesota. Bruce finished with four catches for 133 yards in his first playoff game.
Warner connected with Faulk on a 41-yard scoring pass with 4:19 left in the first quarter, giving the Rams a 14-3 lead.
After the Vikings scored two second-quarter touchdowns to take a 17-14 halftime lead, Tony Horne returned the second-half kickoff 95 yards for a score to ignite the Rams.
"Everyone was calm and I knew it was time to take one to the house," Horne said. "It's all teamwork. It set the tone for the rest of the game."
A one-yard scoring run by Faulk midway through the third quarter increased the lead to 28-17.
Warner threw three scoring passes -- a 13-yarder to Robinson, a one-yarder to Tucker and a two-yarder to Williams -- in a 7:09 span bridging the third and fourth quarters to finish off St. Louis' 35-point second-half explosion.
After passing for 215 yards in the first half, Minnesota's Jeff George failed to muster any offense in the second half before St. Louis broke open the game with 35 unanswered points.
Trailing 48-17, George threw three touchdown passes in the final 4:56. He finished 29-of-50 for 423 yards -- the third-highest total in postseason history -- and four touchdowns.
Randy Moss had nine catches for 188 yards and two TDs and Cris Carter added seven receptions for 106 yards for Minnesota. The loss ended a disappointing season for the Vikings (11-7), who advanced to the NFC championship game last season.
"A couple of key things killed us, obviously the kickoff return for a TD and a couple of turnovers," Green said. "It's just a game where they made too many plays."
The game was expected to be a shootout and the teams combined for 12 touchdowns, tying a postseason record set when Philadelphia defeated Detroit, 58-37 in the 1995 NFC wild card round, and 880 yards. The combined 86 points is the second-highest total in playoff history.
The Rams scored 526 points this season, the third-highest total in NFL history, while the Vikings ranked third in offense. Last season, Minnesota set an NFL record with 556 points.
Minnesota ran 46 plays in the first half and consumed the ball for 23 1/2 minutes compared to 16 plays for the Rams, who had two quick-strike touchdowns and two turnovers.
Minnesota's first drive, which was capped by Anderson's field goal, went 60 yards in 11 plays and featured seven running plays.
On St. Louis' first play from scrimmage, Warner rifled a pass over the middle to Bruce, who raced past safety Anthony Bass near midfield and went untouched for the end zone.
After the Rams forced Minnesota to punt with the help of a 13-yard sack by safety Billy Jenkins, the Rams needed only four plays to reach the end zone again.
Warner hit Bruce with a 26-yard pass and connected with rookie Torry Holt for 11 yards to the Minnesota 45. Two plays later, Faulk caught a short pass near the left side, glided toward the middle of the field and raced to the right corner of the end zone for a 41-yard TD, giving the Rams a 14-3 lead with 4:19 left in the quarter.
After a sack by linebacker Charlie Clemons on 3rd-and 11 forced Minnesota to punt again, the Rams took over but quickly gave the ball back when a long pass by Warner for Bruce was intercepted by cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock at the Minnesota 4.
The Vikings drove 96 yards in eight plays with George hitting Moss with a 24-yard pass and connecting with Jake Reed on a 41-yard bomb down the right sideline. Carter capped the drive with a leaping 22-yard catch in the middle of the end zone 5:07 into the second quarter.
The teams traded turnovers later in the quarter when Rams cornerback Dexter McCleon intercepted a pass intended for Moss at the Minnesota 41. But on the next play, Faulk fumbled a handoff and Vikings safety Robert Griffith recovered at his own 47.
Minnesota took advantage with a seven-play, 53-yard drive and grabbed its first lead on a four-yard TD run by Leroy Hoard with 2:40 left in the half.
St. Louis reached the Minnesota 37 after a 22-yard pass from Warner to Bruce, but a nine-yard sack by tackle John Randle knocked them out of field goal range.
But Horne's kick return to open the second half swung the momentum in the Rams' favor and they dominated the third quarter.
"It changed the momentum big-time," Hitchcock said. "After a score like that, we have to put out the fire. We had to pick up the offense and we didn't do it."
Horne fielded the kick at the St. Louis 5, moved to his left as the wedge formed and raced down the sideline for the first postseason touchdown return in club history. He had two touchdowns on kick returns this season, including a 101-yarder at Atlanta on October 17.
After a three-and-out by Minnesota, Az-Zahir Hakim returned a punt 15 yards with a five-yard incidental facemask penalty giving St. Louis possession at its 49.
Faulk ran three times for 14 yards and Warner hit Williams with an 18-yard pass to the Minnesota 14. After an eight-yard pass to Bruce, Faulk went off right tackle for a one-yard touchdown, increasing St. Louis' lead to 28-17 with 8:28 left in the third quarter.
Two incompletions by George capped another three-and-out for the Vikings and the Rams followed with an eight-play, 61-yard drive. Warner capped it with a 13-yard scoring pass to Robinson, a converted defensive lineman, with 22 seconds left in the third quarter.
On Minnesota's next possession, George fumbled the snap and defensive tackle D'Marco Farr recovered for the Rams at the Vikings 23.
Warner promptly hit Hakim and Holt with passes of 10 and eight yards to the Minnesota 5. After a quarterback draw netted four yards, Warner hit Tucker on a tackle-eligible play for a one-yard score 84 seconds into the fourth quarter.
"I line up a lot as a tackle eligible," Tucker said. "They really weren't looking for that but they should have today."
Following yet another three-and-out by Minnesota, the Rams marched 62 yards in eight plays as Warner threw a two-yard TD toss to Williams, extending St. Louis' lead to 49-17 with 8:13 left.
George completed only 2-of-8 passes for minus-9 yards with a turnover while the Rams reeled off 35 points. In the final 4:56, he hit Reed with a four-yard touchdown and connected with Moss on scoring plays of 44 and two yards. Minnesota converted 1-of-3 two-point conversions on a run by Hoard.
"With the wide receivers we have, we knew we could go out and put up points," Moss said. "But with the talent St. Louis has, they are also capable of scoring a lot of points. I have to give them credit. They came out and outplayed us today."
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