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Rams' rout should alert Bucs to be afraid -- be very afraid

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 17, 2000


ST. LOUIS -- Advice for Tony Dungy: Don't look.

Hide the game films. Do not allow your team to watch SportsCenter. Steal the sports sections from the newspapers. If anyone asks, say that as far as you know, the Rams are still in Los Angeles. Better yet, Cleveland.

Whatever you do, Tony, do not let your team get a load of the team that awaits it.

For goodness' sake, the Bucs could pull neck muscles just watching the scoring plays.

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Gary Shelton: Rams' rout should alert Bucs to be afraid -- be very afraid

At the risk of being the bearer of bad tidings, these Rams are the real deal. They are waves of speed followed by waves of speed, followed by the really fast guys. They are a blinding team in a deafening building, and the result can leave the senses numb. Remember what Roy Scheider said to Robert Shaw when he first saw the shark in Jaws? "You're gonna need a bigger boat." Well, Tony, upon first glance, you're gonna need more defensive backs.

There had been a sneaking suspicion the Rams were a good-but-not-great team that somehow had scheduled its way into a very good record -- as if the NFL had suddenly subscribed to the BCS. Until now, there was a school of thought that the playoffs might expose the Rams hollow center and, next thing you know, Kurt Warner would be back in Iowa telling his receivers to watch out for the fences.

No more. After watching St. Louis squash the Minnesota Vikings 49-37 on Sunday (don't be fooled by a lot of Vikings' fluff points at the end; this was not a close game), it is obvious the Rams are genuine. They are better than the Vikings, this season or last. They are better than the Packers, Rhodes' or Holmgren's.

Prepare yourself, then, to see the Bucs billed as an overwhelming underdog (and the Rams, presumably, as the opposite) going into Sunday's NFC title game. To the rest of the country, this is going to come across as shoe vs. grape, windshield vs. bug, scissors vs. paper. Not only that, but the shoe, windshield and scissors get to play at home.

Part of it, of course, is the Rams are a lot easier on the eyes. America loves its high-tech. The Bucs are a '50s garage band. The Rams are a Kiss concert. The Bucs are a typewriter. The Rams are a computer.

But part of it, too, is understandable. This season, the Rams have played great offense and very good defense. The Bucs have played great defense and, well, more great defense. So how is Tampa Bay supposed to run with these guys? And how long can it really hold this collection of fabulous offensive weapons down? No wonder the smart money says this is where the Bucs' season dies.

Aha, you say. Doesn't good defense stop good offense? Yeah, but not forever. Not in this building, which is so loud they pass out free earplugs in the street before you enter. Not on this artificial track, which turns a football field into the Autobahn.And not unless the Bucs can muster a modicum of offense themselves.

For Tampa Bay to have a shot, this is the first order of business. Stop the three-and-out silliness. The Bucs have to play keepaway (Remember last season's home game against Minnesota?). That's how a great offense is stopped. Remember Buffalo's 51-3 victory over the Raiders in the AFC title game after the 1990 season? The Bills lost the Super Bowl to the Giants. Remember Minnesota's 41-21 bashing of the Cardinals a year ago? The Vikings lost to Atlanta the next week at home.

The upsets occurred because the Giants and the Falcons were able to run, to control the field and the clock. If the Bucs are to have a chance, they cannot repeat the feeble running performance they had against Washington. They have to chew up yards against a Rams defense that is much, much better than Washington's.

If this game were in Tampa, I'd give the Bucs a puncher's chance. But here? Where the confidence of the Rams has soared so high it pushes against the roof?

Kevin Carter: "We don't lose in the dome."

Isaac Bruce: "I had a great time today, and I expect to have a great time next week. We aren't overlooking Tampa Bay. We expect a physical game. And we expect another victory."

Todd Lyght: "We're the hot team. We're the team to beat. And I don't think it's going to happen."

It's hard to blame the Rams for feeling that way. They've won 10 straight here, averaging 36 points. Take Sunday's game. They ran all of five plays in the first quarter. Two went for touchdowns. Two others were for first downs. The other was a 4-yard reverse, which we can assume will be thrown out of the playbook.

Oh, the Rams were ordinary in the second quarter when they fell in love with their own cuteness (which is something to peg hope on, one supposes), but then they scored 21 in the third and 14 in the fourth, and it was all over except for the eardrum hemorrhaging.

Look, the Bucs will do a better job than the Vikings, who at times struggled to line up properly (the first play of the game, for instance, when a cornerback ignored Bruce). But can they really lure a team of this speed, with this many great playmakers, into the type of drudgery they require to win? Can they run the ball and keep it from Warner? Can they get turnovers? Can they quiet these crazies?

Answer: They'd better.

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