By Dan Arkush (darkush@pfwmedia.com)
Jan. 11, 2005




After becoming the first 8-8 team in league history to win a playoff game, can the better-late-than-never Rams continue to dismantle the NFL form sheet?

Since the current 12-team playoff format began in 1990, NFC teams with first-round byes are 25-3 in the conference semifinals.

We repeat: 25-3.

Can the Rams, who won just two games on the road during the regular season, keep their unlikely postseason dreams alive by beating the Falcons in what promises to be a very noisy Georgia Dome, where the Falcons won seven of eight games this season, losing only to Lions?

Well, stranger things have happened.

And we all must admit that this year's playoffs are off to a pretty wacky start, with three road teams already pulling off unlikely victories last weekend.

But we're talking about the Rams, a team where dysfunction is the norm. Will they come out this Saturday night looking like the team that played so well two weeks ago against the Jets and in its two visits to Seattle this season? Or will they look more like the team that lost in Atlanta back on Sept. 19, when it was outscored 17-0 in the fourth quarter of a 34-17 butt-whipping?

Can the Rams catch the same kind of Saturday-night fever that propelled the Jets past the Chargers (don't you just love pro football on Saturdays?)? Can head coach Mike Martz outsmart Jim Mora, an old nemesis, with the same kind of play-calling magic that enabled his team to make playoff history last Saturday?

OK, I'll finally give you the answer, even though scary factoids keep running through my head, threatening to keep my fingers from daring to throw my support in the Rams' direction.

Like the Rams' minus-24 turnover ratio, the worst ever registered by a playoff-bound team.

And the fact that the Falcons have the NFL's top-ranked rushing offense, led by RB Warrick Dunn (1,106 yards rushing) and QB Michael Vick (902), a ground game that netted a whopping 242 yards on 38 carries in their earlier victory over St. Louis this season.

And the . OK, enough with the factoids.

Yes. The Rams CAN win this Saturday night. Absolutely. I've watched them oh so closely all season, and they really do seem like a much different team than the one that frustrated its fans to no end during the regular season.

The offense appears to be operating on all cylinders at just the right time.

Fleet-footed youngsters Kevin Curtis, who has come up huge the last two games, and secret weapon Shaun McDonald, whose 31-yard third-down completion on the Rams' game-winning drive last Saturday was the best play I've seen called this season, are becoming very effective complements to WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.

"Both those guys are young and they're fast," says Rams Pro Bowl OLT Orlando Pace. "They're only going to get better from here on out."

And QB Marc Bulger looks extremely confident (the Rams converted 9-of-14 third downs vs. Seattle last Saturday) and is throwing the ball with a lot of zip.

But the biggest difference is on defense, especially up front.

A couple more youngsters - DT Jimmy Kennedy and DE Tony Hargrove - have added a perfectly timed spark since becoming starters late in the regular season.

"At this point now, I think they feel very good about the fronts we're running and the responsibilities," Martz said of his revamped D-line. "They can rely on their speed. Every one of those guys up front has been significant in one way or another during a game. They feel good, they're healthy, they're having some success. It's kind of like a feeding frenzy now. It's fun to see."

If the defense can stop Dunn, Vick and T.J. Duckett the same way they stopped Shaun Alexander last Saturday . and the offensive line, particularly Pace, can play better than it did the first time it went up against Atlanta this season, when it gave up five sacks . and the Rams' special teams don't get outplayed like they were in the first Falcons game, when they got fooled by a first-half onside kick . and Martz doesn't forget about his ground game .

If all these things happen, then yes, the Rams could live to see another day.

In any case, as Martz said a few paragraphs ago, it'll be fun to see if they can.

Better late than never.