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Marshall Faulk and the high-flying St. Louis Rams are waiting for the Buccaneers. [AP photo]

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 17, 2000


ST. LOUIS -- If time of possession meant anything, the Rams would be toast.

But how long does it take to score on a 77-yard touchdown pass? (Twenty-one seconds.)

And how long to run an 82-yard drive in four plays? (One hundred and fifty-five seconds.)

And to run back a kickoff? (Eighteen seconds.)

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And to recover fumbles at the start of two opposition drives in the same quarter? (You get the point.)

St. Louis didn't need the ball all that long Sunday -- 25 minutes, 49 seconds, if you're scoring at home -- to blow away the Minnesota Vikings 49-37 in an NFC divisional playoff, setting up a Bucs-Rams conference championship here.

Yes, blown away. It was 49-17 with barely eight minutes to play before the Vikings rose up against a worn-out defense and scored on three Jeff George passes.

"We only had the ball six minutes (in the first quarter)," Rams coach Dick Vermeil said. "We scored too quick. It's exciting, but your defense winds up being out there a long time against a tremendous offense."

On their opening play, Rams quarterback Kurt Warner responded to Minnesota's 51/2-minute march to a field goal with a pass that Isaac Bruce caught between cornerback Anthony Bass and linebacker Ed McDaniel at the 50-yard line and took the rest of the way.

"I'd been thinking about that play all yesterday," Warner said. "I went over every scenario in my head on what all we were going to do. And we couldn't wait to get out there and run it. ... Great call, great to get out of the chute quickly."

Next possession, Warner and Bruce hooked up for 26 yards. Two short plays later and Warner passed to Marshall Faulk. "It was about a 2-yard pass and Marshall ran all over the place and scored," Warner said.

Oh, the Vikings, down 14-3, caught and passed St. Louis in the second quarter, taking a 17-14 lead into the locker room. But they were doomed.

"We were frustrated with ourselves because the whole first half they didn't stop us. We stopped ourselves," Warner said. "It was all the things we did, nothing they did against us. That's what we talked about."

"I felt very comfortable at halftime," Vermeil said. "I said, "Guys, we're only down by three. We've taken their best shots. Now let's deliver ours.' "

It didn't take long. Tony Horne took the kickoff, cut through the Vikings and put the Rams ahead to stay.

"I certainly didn't expect Tony Horne to score," Vermeil said, "but I appreciated it."

George threw for 424 yards and four touchdowns, but having to play catchup even before the Vikings had the ball in the third quarter took a lot out of the team.

"The mood (at halftime) was unbelievable," George said. "We really believed that we were going to win this game. There wasn't a person on offense or defense that thought different. ... We were pretty fired up at halftime, up three and feeling good. Having that (kickoff return) happen right off took a lot out of us. The whole momentum changed. We thought the crowd was out of it and we felt we had (the Rams) right where we wanted them."

That began a three-touchdown quarter, with Faulk, traded here by Indianapolis before the Colts drafted Edgerrin James, scoring on a 1-yard dive. So James' season is done and Faulk's goes on.

If before the trade anyone had suggested to him that he'd be in the NFC championship, "I would have told them they were crazy," he said. "I didn't think I'd be playing in the NFC. But in this business, all things are possible."

The game got out of hand, with Warner passing to everyone but his linemen.

Check that. He passed 1 yard to Ryan Tucker in the fourth quarter on a tackle-eligible play that opened a 42-17 lead.

"I line up a lot as tackle eligible," Tucker said. "(The Vikings) weren't looking for that, but they should have."

The Vikings didn't know where to look. Warner picked out 10 receivers en route to passing for five touchdowns. "Five touchdowns; just average in the Arena League," the refugee from the Iowa Barnstormers said.

What did he take from his career in the AFL that he could take into the game for the conference championship?

"All I took from that is that I lost two of them and I don't want to lose any more."

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