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Climate Appears Just Right for Ram Run to Super Bowl

January 08, 2002|Sam Farmer

Weather? Who cares about the weather?

The St. Louis Rams don't need to step outside for the rest of the season--two games in the climate-controlled confines of their home stadium and, assuming they win both, a finale at the Superdome.

Their biggest concern is turnovers, which, for them, tend to come in bushels. They had six in a loss to Tampa Bay and eight in a loss to New Orleans. Hang onto the ball, and they should be hanging onto the Lombardi Trophy.

A look at the postseason field:

The Favorites

St. Louis (14-2)--The defenses that do well against the Rams are those that rely on a great front four to put pressure on Kurt Warner, allowing seven players to drop in coverage. Of the three NFC teams that use that strategy effectively--New Orleans, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants--only the Buccaneers are still around. If they win their first-round game at Philadelphia, the Bucs are St. Louis-bound.

The Ram to watch is defensive end Leonard Little, a converted linebacker who hash 14.5 sacks in 13 games (a knee injury sidelined him for three weeks), even though he's in only on passing downs. Opponents are going to have to pay more attention to Little, who was quick enough in the finale to chase down Atlanta's speedy Michael Vick from behind.

Pittsburgh (13-3)--After throwing a league-low five interceptions in his first 14 games, Kordell Stewart has thrown six in the past two weeks. We'll find out if that's just a fleeting glitch or a return to his old Keystone Kop days.

Detractors in Pittsburgh are waiting for the bottom to fall out on his dream season.

Things are officially bad for kicker Chris Brown, who leads the league with 14 missed field-goal attempts and has blown three PATs. A lot of his problems have come at the open end of Heinz Field, where the winds swirl with a vengeance. Only two opposing kickers--Gary Anderson and Matt Stover--have made field goals there.

The Steelers have a fantastic defense, but they tend to have problems with quarterbacks who take a three-step drop and get rid of the ball quickly. They like passers who hang on, hang on, hang on, then disappear under a pile of defenders. Evidently, lots of quarterbacks buy into that strategy; Pittsburgh boasts a league-best 55 sacks.

Don't Count Them Out

Green Bay (12-4)--The Packers have never lost a home playoff game, and Brett Favre is 30-0 at Lambeau Field when the temperature at kickoff is 34 degrees or colder. Two things that make him especially effective in cold and/or wet weather: He has huge hands and he throws a pinpoint, wind-cheating spiral. Ahman Green is a dangerous running back who commands the attention of a defense, and he tends to play well in crummy conditions. The Packers' soft spot? Receivers Bill Schroeder and Antonio Freeman are average, and even Pro Bowl tight end Bubba Franks doesn't strike fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators. If Green Bay gets past San Francisco, it's bad news for the Bears.

New England (11-5)--He came out of nowhere--absolutely nowhere--to rescue the Patriots, a team projected to finish no better than .500. Far from being a household name, he was lucky to have a job when New England signed him. Not quarterback Tom Brady, but running back Antowain Smith. Cut by Buffalo last season and picked up by the Patriots just before training camp, Smith has emerged as one of the league's most reliable power backs. His ability to grind out yards has taken a lot of pressure off Brady, the boy wonder of Beantown. The No. 1 responsibility of Brady, who has thrown two touchdown passes in five games: No critical mistakes. So far, it's working beautifully.

Chicago (13-3)--Jim Miller is one of the lowest-rated quarterbacks in the league and, going by the numbers, is horrible in third-down passing. But just as Trent Dilfer did for Baltimore last season, Miller avoids turning over the ball and doesn't take unnecessary risks. The Bears are feasting on the no-respect angle, constantly referring to their us-against-the-world status. If they feel insecure about their record, it figures. They have cornered the market on lucky bounces and unbelievable finishes. Some people have crowned Brian Urlacher the next Dick Butkus, but the guy playing in Urlacher's shadow, Warrick Holdman, is one of the best-tackling linebackers around.

San Francisco (12-4)--The 49ers are hurting for healthy defensive ends, reminiscent of two years ago when they signed a rusty Charles Haley for the playoffs. He was better than respectable. What should they do now? What's Reggie White doing? It might not be a brilliant personnel move (then again, who knows?) but it would be enormously popular among sportswriters. Imagine, the 49ers heading to a first-round game at Green Bay with White in tow. Story lines don't get much better.

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