Just like Old Times
The Rams showed flashes of their championship season while streaking to an easy win over the Vikings
Inside the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Sunday, it felt like 1999 all over again. There were lots of quick scoring drives, each one followed by a deafening roar from the crowd and the playing of Bang on the Drum All Day over the stadium P.A. Before you knew it, the Rams had broken clear of the Vikings in the third quarter and were on their way to another blowout win at home, 48-17
Including the playoffs, St Louis was 10-0 at home during its 1999 Super Bowl championship season, winning by an average of 21.4 points a game. These Rams are 6-0 in the dome, winning by an average of 19.2 in those games. With a favorable December schedule—St. Louis plays at Cleveland, at home against the Seahawks and the Bengals, and at Detroit—it's beginning to look as if the Rams will have home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, just as they did in '99. St. Louis and Philadelphia are tied at 9-3 atop the conference, but the Eagles have a tougher schedule left, with home games against the Cowboys and the 49ers and trips to play the Dolphins and the Redskins.
The similarities don't stop there. On Sunday running back Marshall Faulk was spry and explosive, looking like the league MVP of old. He ran for three touchdowns against Minnesota and turned in his third consecutive 100-yard rushing game, collecting 108 yards on just 17 carries. Wideouts Tony Holt and Isaac Bruce combined for 11 catches, 151 receiving yards and a touchdown. The defense chipped in when safety Aeneas Williams scored on a 90-yard fumble return. And a storybook quarterback led St Louis to scores on seven of its 10 possessions, including two touchdowns on one-play lightning strikes.
Four years ago the story was quarterback Kurt Warner's rise from grocery-store stock boy to league MVP, arguably the most surprising rise to greatness in NFL history. This season the focus is on his replacement, Marc Bulger, a waiver-wire pickup in 2001 who is 15-3 as a starter. However, his ride hasn't been as smooth as Warner's was. Going into Sunday's game, Bulger had thrown 17 interceptions this season, the second most in the league, and in his previous four games he had been picked off 10 times while tossing only four touchdown passes. Worse, the media and the fans were clamoring for the return of Warner, who hasn't played since the season-opening loss to the Giants, in which he fumbled six times (THE LIFE OF REILLY, page 104).
On Sunday, Rams coach Mike Martz called plays early on that he believed would help Bulger regain his confidence, sending him on rollouts twice, putting him in the shotgun and going to shorter drops against the toothless Vikings' defense. Bulger, who completed 15 of 20 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown with one interception, played with a self-assurance that reminded observers of vintage Warner. "As bad as my stats have been recently," Bulger said afterward, "I still felt like I was throwing the ball really well. Maybe I've been too risky at times, but when you're confident, which I am right now, you tend to feel you can put the ball in there."
He was sacked once and made but one ill-advised throw: a bomb into double coverage that was intercepted by Vikings safety Brian Russell. "I wish he had overthrown it," Martz said. "But that's the one mistake he made in this game. One."
That's about how many mistakes were made per game by the St. Louis quarterback in 1999.
Flag-happy Officiating Crews
Refs That Teams Don't Want to See
The NFL says it's just a coincidence. But after examining the game-by-game penalty logs of the league's 17 officiating crews, it's hard to believe that mere happenstance explains why some crews are consistently flagging a significantly higher number of penalties than other crews. Cases in point: