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Quite a Double Whammy

NFC playoffs: Ram defense takes center stage in 45-17 victory, forcing Packers' Favre into a nightmare performance.

January 21, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Ram defense made its way into the NFL record books Sunday, even though most of America had already changed the channel.

Six times the Rams wrapped their hands around Brett Favre passes--tying a postseason interception record--on their way to a 45-17 throttling of the Green Bay Packers in an NFC division playoff game.

It was a national coming-out party for a defense that has quietly thrived in the shadows cast by quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk.

Warner and Faulk were bit players as the Rams generated a season-low 292 yards of offense, their first sub-300-yard day in more than a year. No matter, the league's third-ranked defense had the game well in hand.

"Our offense is so good, we as a defense can go out, sneak in the house and take all the goods," cornerback Aeneas Williams said. "And they'll never know we're there."

Strange analogy from a licensed minister, but, hey, cut Williams some slack. He was feeling a bit giddy after returning two interceptions for touchdowns--the Rams had three such scores on the day--and getting mobbed in the end zone by teammates and well-wishers almost falling out of the stands to slap him on the back.

In 10 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, Williams played in two postseason games. Now, in his first season with the Rams, he's one victory away from the Super Bowl.

Philadelphia, which plays here Sunday in the NFC championship game, should offer more resistance. The Rams and Eagles needed overtime to decide their season opener at Veterans Stadium, St. Louis kicking a field goal to win, 20-17.

By comparison, the Packers were patsies. They fell behind, 21-7, early in the second quarter, even though Green Bay held a commanding edge in yards, first downs and time of possession.

None of that matters, of course, when your quarterback is playing as if his eyes have been duct-taped shut.

"He's one of the great quarterbacks, a hall of famer, the whole thing," said Ram defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, who faced Favre for years when Ahanotu played for Tampa Bay. "But Brett's just been throwing it up. I don't know what it is, whether he's been getting old, he doesn't want to get the hits, or he just doesn't care anymore. You see him on film, he's doing check downs the whole game and then he just throws it up in the air."

So was Favre despondent? Sullen? Speechless? Nah.

"Nothing's inconceivable to me," said Favre, who two weeks earlier gave up the NFL single-season sack record to the New York Giants' Michael Strahan. "I could have thrown eight, and we would have gotten the ball back. But I'm going to keep chucking it.

"I can't even remember the second one, nor the third one or the fourth, fifth or sixth ones. They all seemed to run together. Six of them are going to count as mine, I can assure you of that."

That was fine by the Rams, whose defensive turnaround is one of the season's more remarkable stories. They have eight new starters and a first-year defensive coordinator, Lovie Smith, who brought the scheme from Tampa Bay.

The Rams gave up 471 points last season, the seventh-highest total in NFL history, and returned only two interceptions for touchdowns. They almost doubled that Sunday, and would have if safety Kim Herring had tacked on four more yards to his 45-yard return.

Turns out, St. Louis players were steamed all week about people saying the Packer game would be a "shootout." Sure, the Ram offense had a league-high 44 turnovers during the regular season, but opponents scored only 10 touchdowns off those.

"A shootout basically means they can just come in here and put 40 points on the board, if I'm not mistaken," Herring said. "Especially nationally they were talking about 45-40. That's crazy."

And Herring knows good defenses. He played for Baltimore last season, when the Ravens rode their defense all the way to a Super Bowl victory. As he sees it, these Rams aren't too far off that pace. St. Louis might up the ante for other teams and cause owners around the league to reason, "If the Rams can turn things around in a year, we can too."

"If they're smart, especially in a situation like Indianapolis where they already have the offense in place, they should get someone who runs this type of defense," linebacker London Fletcher said. "It's proven to be successful."

It certainly was Sunday. Green Bay did have 383 yards of offense, but much of it was after the game was decided. In all, the Packers had eight turnovers. Antonio Freeman, one of the few targets Favre hit, caught touchdown passes of 22 and eight yards.

Warner threw for 201 yards--his second-lowest total of the season--with one interception. He didn't seem to mind.

"It's a luxury that you don't have to make big plays and force plays in a situation like this," he said. "We felt we were going to sit back and take what they gave us."

And the Packers kept on giving.

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Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This

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