Rams boast best record in upside-down season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Consider this scene at the Trans World Dome after the St. Louis Rams' 42-20 demolition of the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday:

49ers president Bill Walsh interrupted Dick Vermeil's post-game media session by telling the Rams coach, "You're going all the way."

And Vermeil, in protest, saying, "Oh, don't say that."

The Rams in the Super Bowl? The team that went 9-23 and finished last in the NFC West the last two seasons? Just as strange, a concession in Week 5 from the man who built the 49ers' dynasty?

That exchange said everything about the bizarre start to the 1999 season. It's a season in which the two conference champions are both 1-4 and in which injuries have stripped several contenders of their best players.

There are no dominant teams in the league this season, and none appears on the horizon. Look at the Week 5 results:

The previously unbeaten Dallas Cowboys, playing ultra-conservatively, lost to the previously winless Philadelphia Eagles with a fourth-quarter collapse.

The Minnesota Vikings, a consensus pick to win the NFC this season, lost at home to the Chicago Bears, who now have the better record of the two teams.

The Rams, the only unbeaten team left in the NFL, crushed the 49ers, who had won 17 straight in this lopsided series.

Every contender seems to have a fatal flaw. In the NFC, the Washington Redskins can't play defense, the Tampa Bay Bucs can't play offense, and the Green Bay Packers have leaned heavily on quarterback Brett Favre's fourth-quarter wizardry to win three games.

In the AFC, the Miami Dolphins still can't run the ball, the Jacksonville Jaguars suddenly are having trouble throwing it, and the New England Patriots take every game to the last second.

So, why not a St. Louis-Buffalo Bills Super Bowl? It would be a feel-good finale. Quarterbacks Kurt Warner against Doug Flutie. The king of the Arena League against the king of the CFL.

This season, why not?

Vintage Marino

In a week when his decision-making was questioned and his starting job threatened, Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino got in the final word of his on-again, off-again feud with coach Jimmy Johnson.

It was an improvisational play call in the huddle that enabled the Dolphins to complete a 34-31 comeback victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Faced with fourth-and-10 at the 50-yard line and trailing 31-27, Marino told wide receiver Oronde Gadsden to run a deep route if the cornerback on his side blitzed.

Marino guessed right. When Thomas Randolph blitzed from the right side, Marino hit Gadsden for a huge 48-yard gain to the Colts' 2. Two plays later, he found Gadsden again for the game-winner with : 27 left.

"That's not a play the coaches would call," Marino said of the long-gainer. "We kind of did it on our own."

What made it even bigger was that, according to the Miami Herald, Johnson called Marino in for a midweek lecture and said he'd lose his starting job unless his play improved.

Marino responded as he has typically to other Johnson challenges: He completed 25 of 38 passes for 393 yards, two touchdowns and a win. If Marino was going to lose his job, he'd do it on his terms.

Round One goes to A. Smith

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Akili Smith fired the first salvo this week in what is certain to be a long-running rivalry with the Cleveland Browns and their quarterback, Tim Couch. Moments after he served up a 2-yard touchdown pass to beat the Browns, 18-17, Smith did a chest-thumping, in-your-face routine in front of the Cleveland bench.

It was his way of saying the Browns chose the wrong quarterback when they made Couch the first pick last April. It made an impact on Couch.

"It definitely angered me," Couch said. "I wouldn't be any kind of a person, wouldn't have any competitiveness in me, if I didn't. I'll definitely remember that.

"And the way he was taunting our crowd, I'm sure saying they should have picked him that will stick in my mind. I'll never forget that little move there."

Countered Smith: "I hope he remembers it the rest of his career. It was a big win. I really believe in my heart that [the Browns] made a mistake. They're confident with Couch. Hopefully, Couch will have a good career; I know he will, he's a good quarterback.

"But there's no doubt in my mind who the better quarterback is. Period."

By the numbers

Parity? Ten of 13 games Sunday were decided by three points or fewer, and there were five more fourth-quarter comebacks, raising this season's total to 25. The Bucs have coughed up 15 turnovers in five games and are minus-12 in turnover ratio. The Vikings have six touchdowns in 20 trips to the red zone this season, a 30 percent success rate. Last year, they were 33-for-56, or 58.9 percent. The Chargers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 23 games, a league high, and held the Lions to 37 yards on 24 carries (a 1.5 average). Until wide receiver Charles Johnson's game-winning 28-yard touchdown catch against Dallas late in the fourth quarter, the Eagles hadn't scored a touchdown in 58 possessions and 18 quarters. Colts rookie running back Edgerrin James has gained exactly 100 more yards (on 27 more carries) than Saints rookie Ricky Williams. James is averaging 3.7 yards a carry to Williams' 3.6, but also has fumbled three times in four games.

Two-minute drill

Questions

Can the 4-0 Rams become the Falcons of 1999, a losing franchise out of the lame NFC West that rides a hot hand all the way to the Super Bowl?

How many NFL doors will swing open for Arena Leaguers next summer after QB Kurt Warner's fantasy start for the Rams?

Will Bengals QB Akili Smith regret his chest-pounding self-indulgence in front of the Browns bench the next time the two teams meet?

Answers

The Giants' season is in serious jeopardy. Coach Jim Fassel has tried two QBs -- Kent Graham and Kerry Collins -- and still can't crank up a stalled offense. Worse yet, Fassel admitted this week he's "befuddled" by it all.

The 49ers' mini-secondary that includes CBs Darnell Walker, Mark McMillian and R. W. McQuarters -- all under 5 feet 10 -- won't pass muster. One week after Tennessee's Neil O'Donnell threw for 355 yards against them, Warner torched the 49ers for 323 and five TDs.

Apparently, RB Ricky Williams isn't the final piece of the Saints' playoff puzzle after all. They haven't scored in the fourth quarter this season and have blown three fourth-quarter leads to drop to 1-3.

Issues

Throw out the tape measure. Every time 5-9 QB Doug Flutie wins another game for the Bills, he makes the NFL's talent scouts look small. He's won 11 of 15 regular-season starts since taking over for Rob Johnson in Week 7 a year ago after an eight-year sabbatical in the CFL.

Offensive coordinator Joe Pendry has adapted the Bills' scheme to suit Flutie's unique skills. In a 24-21 win over the Steelers, Flutie passed for 261 yards and two touchdowns -- often from a spread offense -- and ran for 39 more.

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