As St. Louis players floated off the field and toward the tunnel in the aftermath of their 40-29 dismantling of the Vikings on Sunday, it was impossible to discern joy from relief. Whose gestures most appropriately fit St. Louis's biggest win of the year? Perhaps it was that of owner Georgia Frontiere, wearily smiling her toothy smile; or of quarterback Kurt Warner, defiantly waving his index finger domeward; or of defensive end Kevin Carter, who threw back his head and merrily dangled his Sideshow Bob dreads, letting the hometown crowd's roar warm his face.
For the Rams, who are 9-5 and tied for the NFC West lead, the victory wasn't just about ending their shocking three-game losing streak or reclaiming their place among the NFL's elite. The defending Super Bowl champs also displayed the trait that had been so important in their title run but had vanished in recent weeks: attitude. "We needed our swagger back," said coach Mike Martz. "We'd become awfully tight. This win's a huge relief, because, well, it was mounting."
Motivational ploys had abounded at the Rams' practice facility all week. On Wednesday, Martz reminded his players that Vikings coach Dennis Green, as co-chair of the NFL's competition committee, supported the ban on celebrations like the Rams' popular Bob 'n' Weave scoring dance. The next day, on Martz's invitation, Billy Long, Southern University's strength coach and the originator of the St. Louis players' infectious chant, "Gotta go to work," addressed the team after practice. Also that day a tape of the Rams' 49-37 divisional-playoff rout of Minnesota last January played on televisions throughout the complex. "It was great, because it reminded us of what we're capable of," said Warner. "I mean, guys were yelling all day while they watched it."
In rebounding from his four-interception day the previous week against the Panthers (his first game back from the broken right pinkie he suffered on Oct. 22), Warner gave his teammates much more to shout about by hitting his first 11 passes and finishing with 27 completions in 32 attempts for 346 yards. He divvied up the heroics with running back Marshall Faulk, who rushed 25 times for 135 yards and a team-record-tying four touchdowns, and caught six passes for 43 yards.
With a first quarter worthy of any they played last year, the Rams scored on their opening possession, raced to a 14-0 lead and never looked back. "We needed our emotion back, so I told the guys yesterday to do what they do," said Warner, referring to his teammates' repeated dancing of the Bob 'n' Weave, "and that I'd pay the fines—gladly."
In all likelihood St. Louis must win its final two games, in Tampa and New Orleans, if it expects to repeat as NFC West champion, but in the first glorious moments after Sunday's win, that didn't seem to be on anybody's mind. "All the haters get back on board," screamed wideout Ricky Proehl over and over as he entered the locker room. Watching nearby, Frontiere nodded. "We're back to where we want to be," she said. "Don't you think?"