By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Sunday, Jan. 09 2005

Before the game on Sept. 19, Atlanta coach Jim Mora had some words of
inspiration for his Falcons.

"Just close the gate, lock 'em in here, and don't let 'em out until you kick
their (butts)," he said.

And that's pretty much what happened. Outscoring the Rams 17- 0 in the fourth
quarter, the Falcons snapped a seven-game losing streak against St. Louis with
a 34-17 victory at the Georgia Dome.

Led by quarterback Michael Vick's dazzling 109 yards rushing, Atlanta gained
242 yards on the ground. It's the second-highest rushing total yielded by the
Rams in their 10 seasons in St. Louis.

The Rams got fooled by an onside kick in falling behind 14-0 midway through the
first half.

Quarterback Marc Bulger was sacked five times, one of which resulted in a
critical fourth-quarter TD after Brady Smith got around Orlando Pace with an
outside rush and stripped Bulger from behind in the end zone.

Atlanta's active front seven limited the Rams to just 30 yards rushing on 15
carries.

And in what would become a season-long problem area, the St. Louis defense came
up with no takeaways for the second consecutive game.

"We didn't do much of anything, really, in any phase of the game," Mike Martz
said after the game.

But that was fourth months ago. It was still summer. Steven Jackson was
returning kickoffs. Brandon Chillar was starting ahead of Tommy Polley at
linebacker. Cornerback Travis Fisher was out with a broken arm.

The Rams were searching for their identity offensively and defensively, a
process that would take much of the season.

And now they meet again. As a result of Minnesota's first-round playoff victory
Sunday over Green Bay, the Rams get Atlanta in the NFC semifinals Saturday at
the Georgia Dome. The winner advances to the NFC championship game.

While the NFC South champion Falcons were resting with a first-round bye, the
Rams defeated Seattle 27-20 Saturday in a first-round playoff game at Qwest
Field. It was the third victory in a row for the Rams.

Afterward, Martz offered no apologies for making the playoffs despite an 8-8
record.

"We did make it in because we won enough games to get in," Martz said. "So it's
well-deserved. And at this point, only the strong survive. The strong keep
going and the others fall off."

It will take an inspired effort against the Falcons for the Rams to keep going
this postseason. By the numbers, the Falcons aren't overwhelming. They finished
the regular season ranked 20th in total offense and 14th in total defense.

They didn't have a 1,000-yard receiver, and Vick was only the 11th-ranked NFC
quarterback in passer rating. But the Falcons are the NFL's top-ranked rushing
offense, led by Warrick Dunn's 1,106 yards and Vick's 902.

And Vick is a difference-maker of the highest order. There isn't another player
in the NFL who can single-handedly change a game like Vick can.

"I've never seen anybody like him," Rams defensive end Leonard Little said
after the September contest. "It's like having the best athlete in the world at
quarterback."