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NFL PLAYOFFS

Nothing Easy About It

NFC: Faulk runs for 159 yards as Rams hold off Eagles, 29-24, to advance to Super Bowl for second time in three years.

January 28, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — Determined to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three years, the St. Louis Rams relied on their New Orleans natives to show them the way.

Marshall Faulk rushed for 159 yards and Aeneas Williams made the game-clinching interception Sunday as the Rams held off the Philadelphia Eagles, 29-24, setting up a Superdome showdown with the New England Patriots.

Williams, who grew up 10 miles from Faulk in New Orleans, picked off a pass intended for receiver Freddie Mitchell, allowing the Rams to run all but 13 seconds off the clock. Although he made the interception at the St. Louis 34, he was pushed all the way back into the end zone by a mob of celebrating teammates.

Faulk was more effective than spectacular. He simply took the wind out of Philadelphia's defense, keeping the once-blitz-happy Eagles on their heels with an average of 5.1 yards a carry.

"He's probably one of the most unusual players to ever play this game," Ram Coach Mike Martz said. "He's the best of the best, so to speak. And when you have somebody like that, you'd be remiss if you didn't use him."

So the Rams used him. And used him. They responded to a 17-13 halftime deficit by resting the ball squarely in the hands of Faulk, who opened the third quarter with seven consecutive runs. The drive didn't result in a touchdown--Jeff Wilkins kicked a 41-yard field goal--but it was the beginning of the end for Philadelphia's defense.

The Eagle offense sure didn't provide a breather for the defense, going three-and-out on three consecutive possessions.

They didn't get a first down in the second half until the clock showed 5:18 remaining in the game.

By that time, the defense was worn down to a nub.

For the Ram offensive line--which briefly lost Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace to a knee sprain--the ground strategy was a thing of beauty.

"I haven't met an offensive lineman yet that likes to drop back and pass all the time," guard Adam Timmerman said. "We like to run the ball, get the backs involved, and if we have to we'll pass on third down."

It isn't often those words come out of the St. Louis locker room, where Martz and Kurt Warner have built their reputation on finding new ways to violate a defense's airspace.

But these Rams have found different ways to win every week. If Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt aren't cutting cornerbacks to ribbons, Ram defenders are playing host to end-zone parties. Then, there are those games Martz calls Faulk's number seven times in a row ...

"[Martz] has never done that before--and hopefully he'll never do it again," Warner joked.

Actually, Warner appreciated the chance to rest. He sat out of practice Thursday because of bruised ribs, and, for the first time in his career, got an injection before the game to numb the area.

He also wore a bulky flak jacket with extra padding around the tender area.

Thing is, the fearsome Eagles barely touched him. The only time they got to him in the first half was on the last play, when he stayed in the pocket especially long while waiting for a Hail Mary to develop. Linebacker Derrick Burgess just got to him, reaching out and stripping the ball. Timmerman recovered the fumble.

Warner escaped the second half similarly unscathed. The Eagles, who bombarded Chicago with pass rushers a week earlier, blitzed only 12 times against the Rams, who burned them for 109 yards in those situations.

"We didn't get the job done today," Eagle defensive end Hugh Douglas said. "It's our job as a defense to get after the quarterback and make some things happen. We didn't make enough things happen."

Regardless, the Eagles were in the game until the interception by Williams, even though things looked grim for them with 6:55 to play when Faulk scored his second touchdown for a 29-17 lead.

Philadelphia's Brian Mitchell returned the ensuing kickoff 41 yards to the Ram 48, setting up a brilliant no-huddle drive by Donovan McNabb that, at least for a moment, quieted the roaring crowd of 66,502.

McNabb, who kept hope alive with an 11-yard pass to Chad Lewis on fourth and seven, punctuated the drive with a three-yard touchdown run with 3:59 remaining.

Trailing by five, the Eagles decided not to attempt an on-side kick, but rather rest their fate in the hands of their defense. It was a good choice.

St. Louis had a three-and-out and came inches from getting a punt blocked.

Suddenly, for Philadelphia, the road to the Super Bowl was only 55 yards long, and the Eagles had 2:20 to score.

But four plays in, on fourth and seven, Williams stepped in front of Mitchell and ended all the suspense.

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A Tale of Two Halves

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