Posted: Sunday January 23, 2000 11:08 PM
ST. LOUIS (Ticker) -- After Tony Dungy's defensive scheme flustered the St. Louis Rams most of the day, NFL MVP Kurt Warner connected with old pro Ricky Proehl to bail them out.
Proehl's acrobatic 30-yard touchdown catch over the outstretched arm of defensive back Brian Kelly in the left corner of the end zone with 4:44 left in the fourth quarter lifted the Rams to an 11-6 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their first trip to the Super Bowl in 20 years.
"I feel fortunate to have won this game," Rams coach Dick Vermeil said. "Tony had them ready to play and it's a shame someone had to lose this one."
The Rams (15-3) will meet the Tennessee Titans (16-3), an AFC wild card team, in Super Bowl XXXIV next Sunday in Atlanta. The Titans handed the Rams their first loss of the season, 24-21, at Tennessee on October 31.
It was a classic battle between the third-highest scoring team in NFL history with 526 points against the NFC's stingiest defense, which yielded 235 points this season.
"Their offense was supposed to be the next great thing since cotton candy, but it boiled down to one play," Bucs star defensive tackle Warren Sapp said.
The Rams' fast-break offense was held in check by Tampa Bay's "cover 2" and "cover 3" zone scheme, but one touchdown was all they needed to pull out the win. In the face of a blitz, Warner lofted a pass deep down the left sideline to Proehl, who made a leaping catch and cradled the ball against his shoulder as he managed to keep both of his feet in bounds.
"Kurt said if the safety blitzed, we were running the fade," Proehl said. "When I went up, I had it. He (Kelly) was trying to get it out with his hand. I tried to shield him off and it all worked out."
After leading the team with 60 catches in 1998, Proehl, 31, was relegated to fourth receiver status this season behind Isaac Bruce, rookie Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim. He saw extensive time in the second half today after Holt suffered a bruised lung and finished with six receptions for 100 yards.
"Torry was spitting out blood and Az was cramping up, so I had more of an opportunity today," Proehl said. "For 10 years you play in this league and watch other players celebrate after the conference championship game. I was living a dream out there."
"Ricky is our long-lost receiver because we have so much talent," Warner said. "He has sort of become a situation guy. But he had 33 catches and a reporter was telling me that 25 of those came on third-down plays."
Cornerback Dre' Bly set up the winning drive when he intercepted a pass by rookie quarterback Shaun King and returned it nine yards to the Tampa Bay 47.
Tampa Bay reached the St. Louis 22 in the final minute, but a 13-yard sack by defensive end Grant Wistrom pushed back the Bucs. On 2nd-and-23, King hit Bert Emanuel with an apparent 13-yard completion back to the 22. However, a replay challenge was called by the officials and the play was ruled an incomplete pass, although it appeared Emanuel caught the ball with both hands before hitting the turf.
Facing 3rd-and-23, King threw an incompletion after he was nearly sacked by defensive end Grant Wistrom. On the ensuing play, King's desperation pass floated out of the end zone.
"It's a bitter pill right now, although no one gave us a chance to win," Bucs coach Dungy said. "We came here to win. Give them credit, they made the plays in the fourth quarter."
Ironically, the Rams defeated the Buccaneers, 9-0, en route to their lone Super Bowl appearance in the only NFC title game without a touchdown.
Jeff Wilkins, who has been hampered by patellar tendinitis in his non-kicking knee, kicked a 24-yard field goal in the first quarter but missed a 44-yard attempt for the Rams.
St. Louis' defense was responsible for its other points. On the first play of the second quarter, Tampa Bay center Tony Mayberry's snap out of the shotgun went over the head of King, who batted the ball out of the end zone for a safety, giving the Rams a 5-3 lead.
Martin Gramatica kicked field goals of 25 and 23 yards to account for Tampa Bay's scoring. His 23-yarder 4:32 into the third quarter put the Bucs ahead, 6-5.
Warner became only the second quarterback to throw as many as 40 touchdown passes in a season and threw five in his first playoff game last week, a 49-37 win over Minnesota. Today, he completed 26-of-43 passes for 258 yards but was intercepted three times.
"The way they play defense, it's hard to get the big play on them because they change things up and they have a great cover 2 scheme," Warner said. They did a great job. I will give them a lot of credit. But we were able to make one more play."
Last week, Warner's first pass was a 77-yard touchdown to Isaac Bruce. Today, his first pass was deflected and intercepted by Bucs defensive end Steve White at the St. Louis 20. The turnover set up Gramatica's 25-yard field goal 2:38 into the game.
The Bucs also held Marshall Faulk, only the second player to rush and receive for 1,000 yards in a single season, was held to 44 yards on 17 carries and caught three passes for five yards.
"I don't think you can win ugly or win pretty in the playoffs," Faulk said. "I just thought you win in the playoffs. A win's a win."
King was bidding to become the first rookie quarterback to start in a Super Bowl, but failed to lead his team into the end zone. He was 13-of-29 for 163 yards with two interceptions and was sacked five times.
"I obviously didn't play well enough for us to win and that's how I judge my play," King said. "If we win, I feel I played well enough to win. My timing was off just a little bit. When your timing is off against a solid defense, they capitalize on it and that's what happened."
Tampa Bay's duo of Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn combined for 74 yards on 21 carries against the league's top run defense.
After Warner's interception, the Rams put together a 16-play, 74-yard drive which consumed more than eight minutes and resulted in a 24-yard field goal by Wilkins.
Tampa Bay had possession at its own 27 when a snap by Mayberry sailed over the head of King and rolled towards the end zone. With the Rams in pursuit, King illegally batted the ball out of the end zone for a safety.
Tampa Bay opened the second half with a nine-play, 66-yard drive which resulted in a 23-yard field goal by Gramatica, giving the Bucs a 6-5 lead. The key play was a 32-yard pass from King to Jacquez Green along with a 15-yard facemask penalty on defensive back Taje Allen.
The Rams marched 63 yards on their first possession of the second half, but the drive ended when Warner's pass intended for Proehl was intercepted by Bucs middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson at the Tampa Bay 2.
Early in the fourth quarter, Warner was picked off by Kelly, who returned the interception 15 yards to the St. Louis 42.
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