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While skeptics point to St. Louis's weak schedule, it's hard to overlook the way the Rams manhandled opponents. In their 13 wins only three times did they trail as late as midway through the second quarter, by six, four and two points, and they never trailed in the second half. They won nine games by at least 20 points, and their smallest margin of victory was 13.
Tennessee, 13-3 after a 47-36 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, was the first team to defeat the Rams, 24-21 On Oct. 31. Yet the Titans weren't regarded as a Super Bowl threat until they blew out the Jaguars. "I guess they were trying to make a statement," says Jacksonville's McCardell. "Well, they did."
Players around the league took notice. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ken Norton Jr., whose team defeated the Titans 24-22 on Oct. 3, favors Tennessee over the Jaguars and the Rams, even though both those teams beat the Niners handily St. Louis, in fact, did it twice. "I don't see that magic with Jacksonville," Norton says. " Tennessee has it—whatever it is—that extra charge you need to win in the playoffs. They're a physical, exciting team, and they don't seem full of themselves."
If coach Jeff Fisher ever senses cockiness creeping into the locker room of the Titans' lush new training facility, all he has to do is remind players of starker times. As superb a coaching job as Fisher has done in 1999: his success in holding the team together through the previous three campaigns, all of which ended in 8-8 records, may be even more impressive. Over the past four years the franchise has had four home stadiums in three cities ( Houston, Memphis and Nashville) and until this year used portable trailers for its headquarters.
The Titans are finally enjoying raucous support at new Adelphia Coliseum, where they have yet to lose, but the home crowd's love is not unconditional. In the season opener Tennessee trailed the Bengals by nine points in the fourth quarter, and fans began booing McNair, who was in the process of throwing for 341 yards and engineering a 36-35 win. When McNair returned in late October after missing five games with a back injury, many of those same fans called for his replacement, Neil O'Donnell, to stay in the lineup. That talk ended after McNair's five-touchdown performance against the Jaguars—though some in the NFL still harbor doubts about the Titans' 26-year-old quarterback.
"McNair had a great game against Jacksonville, but it was the first time I've seen it," says Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan. "I need to see it on a consistent basis. I would put eight in the box and try to stop the run, and if you've got good enough corners to play mano a mano—and you can throw some zone blitzes at them and make McNair read some defenses—I think they can be stopped."
There are no quarterbacking worries in Indianapolis, where second-year sensation Peyton Manning has pushed the Colts to the top of the AFC East, football's toughest division. Indy, which went 3-13 last season, was expected to get better this year, but who could have foreseen the largest single-season improvement in league history? The 13-3 Colts, whose 11-game winning streak was snapped in a 31-6 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, have been keyed by the youthful bliss of Manning and running back Edgerrin James, who became the first rookie since Eric Dickerson in 1983 to lead the league in rushing.
Last Saturday, the day before facing the Bills, veteran defensive end Mark Thomas and two callow offensive linemen, Jeff Saturday and Steve McKinney, visited Niagara Falls and fell silent as they beheld the cascade's awesome power. "As soon as we got back into the cab, they started asking me about the playoffs," says Thomas, who won a Super Bowl with the '94 Niners and played for Carolina in the '96 NFC Championship Game. " 'Does the excitement level go up? Is the intensity different?' I told them, 'Darn right, it is.' It's one of those things that's tough to describe. But everyone will find out soon enough."
So which of these four contenders is the team to beat? Ask the Bengals. Cincinnati is the only team to have played the Colts, Jaguars, Rams and Titans; it went 0-6 in those games. "Shoot, they're all damn good," says Bengals wideout Willie Jackson. "I'll take Jacksonville. Then again, Tennessee...." Washington Redskins cornerback Mark McMillian, who spent the season's first six games with the 49ers, also faced each of the Big Four. "I'd probably go with the Rams," he says, "because it seems like everyone makes plays, and they've overcome a lot of adversity, like losing their quarterback."
Ah, destiny: When Trent Green went down with a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 28, 63-year-old Rams coach Dick Vermeil stayed up late into the night shedding tears of despair. Now he unleashes tears of joy in front of his players on an almost daily basis. Vermeil gets choked up about heroes like Warner, who, among other statistical achievements, has had nine 300-yard passing days; running back Marshall Faulk, who on Sunday broke Barry Sanders's single-season record for total yards rushing and receiving (2,429); and members of an overlooked defense that has scored a gaudy eight touchdowns. Apparently, the emotion is contagious. Vermeil says owner Georgia Frontiere has become teary-eyed during several recent postgame visits to the Rims' locker room. In September, Frontiere, who is to punctuality what Bill Murray is to golf etiquette, stunned her players when she showed up on time for the team picture. "What a blessing," says Bruce, St. Louis's Pro Bowl wideout. "It was the first time that's happened, as far as we know. I guess she's as caught up in this as everyone else."