The New Orleans Saints swept the St. Louis Rams in two NFC West games a year ago by a combined score of 48-20. On Sunday, the Rams scored 28 points in the second half alone to bedevil the Saints, 43-12.
What a difference a year makes. Or, more specifically, what a difference Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Adam Timmerman and Kurt Warner make.
The Saints loaded up with Ricky Williams in the off-season. The Rams traded for Faulk, drafted Holt, signed Timmerman and promoted Warner after quarterback Trent Green was hurt.
Despite gaining a paltry 78 yards in the first half, the Rams held a 15-12 lead over New Orleans. Then they scored touchdowns on all four second-half possessions to blow away the 2-9 Saints.
"They're a much better football team than we are, and that should tell you something," Ditka, the Saints' coach, told reporters afterward.
"We haven't done a good enough job, evidently, personnel-wise to match up with them because they beat us in all areas."
Never mind that Ditka decided the Saints were one player -- Williams -- away from winning big in 1999. It's clear the 9-2 Rams are the big winners in the NFC. A win over the Carolina Panthers next week would clinch the Rams' first playoff berth since 1989 -- and the first for a St. Louis team since 1982.
Obviously, the Rams made all the right personnel moves. Here's how:
The trade for Faulk. Team president John Shaw initiated talks with Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian at the Super Bowl, then completed the deal for the running back in April. The cost was cheap -- second- and fifth-round draft picks -- because Polian wanted to keep Faulk out of his division. Faulk has 908 yards rushing and 585 receiving for 1,493 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns.
The signing of Timmerman. A free agent from Green Bay, Timmerman filled one of the Rams' most pressing needs. "Guard was holding us hostage for so long," said Charley Armey, vice president for player personnel. "We needed to solidify the offensive line, and we felt strongly about the leadership Timmerman would bring." Timmerman signed a five-year deal for $18.7 million.
The selection of Holt in the draft. The Rams wanted to complement wide receiver Isaac Bruce, and used the sixth pick to do it. Holt, with 32 catches and four touchdowns, complements Bruce (61 and 11) perfectly. He had two touchdown catches against the Saints.
The decision to go with Warner when Green went down with a season-ending knee injury. "A lot of people wanted us to go with a veteran quarterback," said Armey, "but Coach [Dick] Vermeil never considered anybody else." The Rams exposed Warner in the expansion draft but guessed correctly that the Cleveland Browns wouldn't take him. He leads the NFL with 29 touchdown passes, two off the club record.
No 'D' in Minnesota
Here's why the Minnesota Vikings are no better than a shaky choice to beat St. Louis in the postseason and win the NFC: defense.
In their last two games, the Vikings have given up 422 passing yards to Chicago Bears quarterback Jim Miller and 404 to the San Diego Chargers' Jim Harbaugh.
Miller and Harbaugh combined to complete 67.8 percent of their passes, generating 914 total yards and 51 points.
With defense like that, Vikings quarterback Jeff George can't afford a letdown.
Head of the class
The Browns have won just two games, but Tim Couch clearly has made the biggest impact of the Class of '99 quarterbacks.
His production continues to improve without the benefit of any complementary playmakers. He threw for a season-high 261 yards and two touchdowns against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
His leadership ability was evident when he was slammed face-first to the turf by Kenny Holmes, suffered cuts on his eyelid and mouth, and proceeded to take the Browns on their longest touchdown drive of the season.
He has thrown for 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
If that pace holds, Couch will become the fifth rookie quarterback since 1970 with at least 10 touchdown passes and a positive TD-interception differential.
By the numbers
The Arizona Cardinals' second win over the New York Giants in 17 games at the Meadowlands earned their first sweep of the Giants since 1979. In 5 1/2 games with Randall Cunningham at quarterback this season, Minnesota wide receiver Cris Carter had 30 catches for 356 yards and one touchdown. In 5 1/2 games with George, Carter has 45 catches for 638 yards and 10 touchdowns. Three of the Cincinnati Bengals' five wins the past two seasons have come against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Teams with at least 30 rushing attempts in a game this season have a record of 99-24 (.805). Teams that have run the ball a minimum of 40 times are 22-2 (.917).
What chance does Bill Cowher have of dumping the final three years of his Steelers contract in an organization that prides itself on loyalty?
Were Mike Ditka's complaints Sunday about Saints personnel designed to create a wedge between him and management?
Will Al Davis endorse Raiders coach Jon Gruden as the next coach at Louisiana State?
Rust is one thing, but QB Dan Marino had no arm strength in the Dolphins' Thanksgiving Day loss in Dallas. He was playing soft toss.
It was tough enough when Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy had to win with QB Trent Dilfer; unless rookie Shaun King is a quick learner, it will be virtually impossible.
What you see is what the Giants get with QB Kerry Collins. He delivered 298 passing yards, four turnovers and a loss upon taking over the starter's job this week.
The 6-5 Patriots are right on schedule to make a late playoff run and an early playoff exit. Since Pete Carroll became coach in 1997, the Patriots have opened the past three seasons with records of 4-0, 4-1 and 4-0. Those starts were followed by 2-5, 1-4 and 2-5 slumps. Each of the two previous years, the Patriots rallied (4-1, 4-2) to make the playoffs. Under Carroll, who inherited a Super Bowl team, New England is 1-2 in the postseason.