Rams' speed, firepower spell doom for Patriots


NEW ORLEANS - Everyone has tried to hype Super Bowl XXXVI, some calling it the game between America's Newest Team and America's New Sweethearts. The media created its own quarterback controversy, and the NFL changed its Mardi Gras-type setting to a patriotic "Hope, Heroes and Homeland" theme, which will include appearances by Jim Brown, Roger Staubach, Alan Page and Don Shula.

But this game has the smell of Buffalo, as in the Bills, who have lost four Super Bowls. It could even be another blowout. Barring a miracle, the New England Patriots will lose their third Super Bowl today at the same site they have lost two others, the Superdome.

The only thing stopping this from being a rout will be New England coach Bill Belichick, who can put together some of the best defensive game plans on the planet. But the Rams have the NFL's best quarterback in Kurt Warner, the league's best running back in Marshall Faulk, a fleet of speedy receivers and the No. 3-ranked defense, which runs nearly as well as Pittsburgh's and the Ravens', the two defenses ranked ahead of them.

The Patriots?

They've got Belichick, a chip on their shoulders from being underdogs all season, and a belief that they're a team of destiny, even though none of the palm readers in town has foretold them becoming champions.

What the Patriots really need is a miracle.

Miracles still exist. Look no further than Tom Brady's fumble that wasn't a fumble in the AFC semifinals against the Oakland Raiders.

The Patriots got another break a week later when the ultimate choker, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher (1-3 in AFC championship games at home), came up with a lame offensive game plan by trying to use an out-of-shape Jerome Bettis and ignoring the best runner on the field, the Steelers' Amos Zereoue. Then he put the game in the hands of quarterback Kordell Stewart, but forgot to take it away in the fourth quarter when the Steelers should have put the game away with Zereoue and smashmouth football.

But that won't happen today.

Rams coach Mike Martz won't swallow the apple. He knows only one speed. It will be a great chess match, Martz vs. Belichick. Martz has copied the offense of Don Coryell and the San Diego Chargers of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but added a lot more formations and motion.

Belichick prides himself on controlling the line of scrimmage and developing schemes weekly. While the Ravens like to play gap control with penetration to disrupt an offense, Belichick prefers to hold ground and keep everything in front of him.

He'll give the Rams a lot of looks in coverages and try to slow down receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.

But the advantage clearly goes to Martz.

"He really knows how to break you down defensively," Belichick said. "You come out of the game, or even at halftime, and you know what he's going after. You know where he sees your weaknesses and you're sitting there trying to plug it up. And then after you get that fixed and you go another series, you can see where Mike has already moved on. He sees where you tried to support that area, and now he's on the other area that you've weakened to compensate."

It doesn't hurt that Martz has Warner and Faulk, or that the game is on turf and St. Louis is a track team in football gear. Great players make great plays in crunch time, and the Rams have two of the league's top performers on offense. No quarterback in the league has better placement than Warner, and Faulk can beat you as a receiver or runner. He'll be a safety valve to counter New England blitzes today.

"I have not seen him at quarterback yet, so they may do that, too," Patriots cornerback Otis Smith said of Faulk. "I have not seen him play defense, but if they need him over there, I'm sure he is more than capable of doing a good job."

New England will try to be very physical and use running back Antowain Smith. But the Patriots will also have to make plays, especially if the Rams' stopper cornerback, Aeneas Williams, matches up with receiver Troy Brown.

The Patriots love to throw short hitch passes to their receivers, but with the Rams' speed, it's only a matter of time before that gets taken away. That puts more pressure on Brady or backup Drew Bledsoe.

The media tried to make a big deal during the week out of who would start, but who cares? In their postseason run, the Rams have stopped Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb.

The Rams aren't nervous about the Brady/Bledsoe combination. One throws like Phil Niekro, the other brings heat like Nolan Ryan. But the scheme of the offense doesn't change.

"I look at New England as a team and not as quarterbacks," said Rams linebacker London Fletcher. "They've gotten to the point where they're playing great team football, not about one person leading them, getting to this point."

The Patriots have used that concept all season, with good special teams play helping fuel their success. Very few picked them to be in the Super Bowl, even fewer after Bledsoe was injured early in the season.

They have peaked, but it might have come a week too soon, just as Pittsburgh hit its high point against the Ravens in the semifinals and was trying to just survive against New England.

But the Rams are still climbing. They got their postseason wake-up call last week. They're up and smelling the coffee this morning.

By tonight, they'll be smelling roses.

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