Of the NFL teams still alive in the long march toward the Super Bowl, the St. Louis Rams (8-5) face by far the most difficult remaining schedule: Minnesota (11-2), Tampa Bay (8-5) and New Orleans (8-5).
But at least they'll get NFL leader Minnesota at home
Sunday, when they can win if they do two things right:
The Ram defense will have to retain the form it showed in
Carolina Sunday when the Panthers won without scoring an offensive touchdown, 16-3.
During Ram quarterback Kurt Warner's second start after a 5
1/2-week injury layoff, he'll be better--but can his defense double-cover Minnesota's
swift receivers, Randy Moss and Chris Carter, and still stop swift runner Robert Smith up
* * * *
Culpepper: Speed, Size, Smarts
As usual, it was quarterback Daunte Culpepper, the Vikings'
250-pound virtual rookie, who saw them through their last start, 24-17, against tenacious
Detroit last week.
In their offense a year ago, the Vikings included Moss,
Carter and running back Smith, but Culpepper wasn't included, and so they dropped out of
the playoffs when Warner prevailed by a familiar Ram score, 49-37.
Culpepper makes things different, bringing in not only great
quarterback speed and size but also an alert presence that deepens the workload for every
He has Minnesota on the road to the NFL's only 14-2 finish.
* * * *
Untimely Drops Killed Warner
On the afternoon when the Ram defense finally kept an opponent from scoring a touchdown, the Ram offense lost its best chance to restore its old status of invincibility when, in the first quarter, Warner's first two downfield thrusts ended in
two dropped passes by wide receivers Az-Zahir Hakim and Torry Holt.
At the time, Warner and running back Marshall Faulk, though
struggling through injuries, were playing football about well as they ever have.
Warner was zipping his passes with what seemed to be his
usual accuracy, and Faulk, whose shoulder injury bothered him increasingly as the game
wore on, was a threat on every play, gaining ground as both runner and receiver.
But just then, in an uncalled-for sequence, first Hakim and
then Holt dropped well-thrown passes, and the air went out of the Rams.
On the instant, they lost the momentum that was about to
lead them to their old arrogance.
In Warner's comeback game, what the Rams had needed most was
an early touchdown or two to restore that old feeling of irresistible accomplishment.
OATES ON FOOTBALL
Warner will improve, but the Rams can't outrun Minnesota now.
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