"Yeah," says St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk. "Us."
That's what coach Mike Martz has been telling the Rams all season, and he's right. St. Louis lost two games, 24-17 to the Bucs and 34-31 to the Saints, in which it turned over the ball a total of 14 times. As Martz considered the Rams' playoff chances after practice last Saturday, it was clear he thought this club was better equipped to run the postseason table than the Super Bowl XXXIV winners. "It's not even close," he said. "We've got so much speed on defense that we didn't have two years ago, and we're better on defense. We're cresting, and I've never been around a team that's more confident."
The St. Louis coaches would prefer to play the teams they haven't faced recently—the Bears and the Packers haven't been on the Rams' schedule the past two years—because they think defenses need a few series to adjust to St. Louis's speed on offense. Chicago's quick defense might harass quarterback Kurt Warner (left), but can the Bears' offense score enough to keep up? The Packers' Brett Favre probably can't win a shootout. This season the Rams were 3-0 against the 49ers and the Eagles combined, though Philadelphia's relentless pursuit and physical secondary frustrated St. Louis in the Rams' 20-17 overtime win on Sept. 9.
And don't forget the Bucs. With a wild-card win at Philly, Tampa Bay, the NFC's sixth seed, would earn a trip to St. Louis. The Rams have lost their last two to the Bucs, and in the meeting before that they had to struggle mightily to win 11-6 at home in the 1999 NFC Championship Game.
Warner has played the Bucs three times, completing only 57% of his throws, with four touchdowns and eight interceptions. "This league's so much about matchups," he says, "and they have some really good defensive matchups against us." Physical safeties. Clinging cornerbacks who know when to take risks. An interior defense that can plug holes. A quarterback who doesn't turn the ball over.
In the AFC the Steelers are the closest thing to a complete team. With a pass rush that comes from every angle and one of the NFL's most versatile offenses, Pittsburgh would bug Warner and drive the ball on St. Louis's defense. In the end, though, how well the Rams play will determine whether anyone else has a chance.