In meetings Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams is the St. Louis Rams' answer to Hairy Potter bookworm Hermione Granger. He sits attentively in the front of the room, taking copious notes and frequently asking questions. On the field, though, he's the schoolyard bully. Forty minutes before Sunday's NFC divisional playoff with the Green Bay Packers at the Dome at America's Center, Williams huddled with his fellow defensive backs during warmup drills and pounded home his message. "Guys, this is our moment, and we have to seize it," Williams, a Rams captain and an 11-year veteran, growled. "What we need to do is cause some turnovers, so let's go out and get that ball."
Once the game began, Williams was the ringleader in a run of leather thefts that would have made Tony Soprano proud. St. Louis's underrated defense forced eight turnovers in its 45-17 victory, more than compensating for a surprisingly tepid effort by the Rams' offense, to advance to next Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles in St. Louis. After scoring three touchdowns and setting up a fourth, coordinator Lovie Smith's devastating defense got its due. "We were bad, and it didn't matter," running back Marshall Faulk said of the Rams' offense. "Trip on that for a minute. I don't know if people thought what our defense did all season was a fluke, but those guys are better than good. They didn't help us win the game; they won the damn game."
In fact, Williams, who turns 34 on Jan. 29, nearly produced more points than the Green Bay offense. He opened the scoring by intercepting a Brett Favre sideline pass and racing 29 yards for a touchdown with 9:18 left in the first quarter, and gave St. Louis (15-2) its final points on a 32-yard interception return with eight minutes to play. In between, early in the third quarter, Williams stripped wideout Antonio Freeman and took that fumble recovery to the house, but after a replay review Williams was ruled down by contact at the Rams' 31. "A guy like Aeneas can lift a team, and that's what he's been doing all year," St. Louis linebacker Don Davis says of Williams, who was acquired from the Arizona Cardinals in a trade last April. "He's brought a work ethic to this team that's unfathomable."
The swarming and speed of the Rams' defense appeared to catch the Packers by surprise. St. Louis's top-ranked offense is usually the unit that overwhelms opponents with its speed. "When a team hasn't played against this offense, it's like a boxer who has watched Mike Tyson on film and formulated a plan," Rams wideout Isaac Bruce said last Friday. "All of a sudden you're in the ring, and he hits you a couple of times and your plan is worthless." But while the offense mustered a season-low 292 yards against Green Bay, the defense administered a beating that resounded all the way to Philadelphia.
Or did it? "We'll get our five minutes of fame," said middle linebacker London Fletcher afterward. "Then everyone will focus on Philly's great pass defense versus our great offense, and we'll be like that hero who saves the day and disappears into the night."
Their performance may have been screaming for attention, but Lovie's Eleven enjoys operating on the down low. Shaped by a magnificent first-year coordinator who seldom raises his voice—"When Lovie says you messed up," Fletcher says, "it's like you let your father down"—the Rams' defenders gently prod one another to meet a strict standard. Last week, for example, end Grant Wistrom reminded free safety Kim Herring of their respective interception totals (two to one, in favor of the big guy), and other teammates teased rookie linebacker Tommy Polley about his maiden status in the same category. Message delivered: Herring returned a second-quarter interception 45 yards to the Green Bay four, and midway through the third quarter the long-armed Polley, nicknamed Wings by his teammates, swooped into the end zone from 34 yards out with the first of his two interceptions.
After Polley's score Williams, the Rams' lone Pro Bowl selection on defense, shed what Smith describes as his "A-student demeanor" and gave in to the thrill of his second career playoff victory. Mimicking the Packers' Lambeau Leap, Williams launched himself into the stands behind the end zone and absorbed head slaps from the fans in the front row. "It was totally unplanned," he said, as he led his father, Lawrence, toward the dome's exit. "Before I knew it, I was jumping, and when I made it over the railing, I was shocked."
After Sunday's show of force, nobody will be shocked if, on Feb. 3 in Williams's hometown of New Orleans, the Rams win their second Super Bowl in three years.