Wilkins kicks down playoff door
By Bryan Burwell
Of the Post-Dispatch
Sunday, Jan. 02 2005

After playing nearly four exhausting, frustrating and exhilarating hours of
breathless sudden-death football - and for that matter an entire season spent
careening madly on a wild emotional roller-coaster ride - Steven Jackson
bounced proudly to the sidelines at the Edward Jones Dome late Sunday afternoon
knowing that this unpredictable season had taken yet another unexpected twist.

Monday night's hero had turned into Sunday afternoon's almost-forgotten man.
Yet here he was on the game's penultimate play, turning a little dump-off pass
in the face of a blitz into a crucial 22-yard gallop that set up the
game-winning play in this 32-29 overtime victory over the New York Jets. We had
all imagined Jackson would play a vital role if the Rams were to beat New York,
just not this vital role.

We had imagined him plowing through the Jets with power and speed. We had
envisioned the 6-foot-2, 231-pound rookie tailback like some dominant battering
Ram, slamming and slashing through the Jets just as he had done six nights
earlier against the Philadelphia Eagles, carrying the Rams into the postseason
on the strength of his strong legs and broad shoulders.

But these are Mike Martz's slightly irregular, occasionally exasperating,
randomly provocative, but always entertaining St. Louis Rams, and they are on
their way to the playoffs, conventional wisdom be damned. They are on their way
to Seattle's Qwest Field for a Saturday afternoon first-round playoff duel with
their old, familiar NFC West rivals.

It no longer mattered that the lead or the momentum of this overtime thriller
with the New York Jets had switched hands at least a thousand times. It didn't
matter that many of the 65,877 worn-out witnesses inside this tin-roofed
madhouse had spent half the afternoon cursing at the head coach for abandoning
the running game and going with a pass-happy offensive attack that provided
them with just as many hair-pulling moments as hair-raising ones. It also
didn't matter that several hundred miles away on two different coasts, games
were being played that would help determine the outcome of the Rams season.

All that mattered was that the dysfunctional Rams, with their embattled coach,
tattered offensive line, struggling defense, suspect special teams and
less-than-spectacular 8-8 record were playoff-bound after Jeff Wilkins kicked a
game-winning 31-yard field goal following Jackson's catch and run.

The Rams knew they had to win this game to get into the playoffs, but they also
knew that they needed the Minnesota Vikings to go into Washington and lose to
the Redskins. With both games going on simultaneously, scoreboard watching was
the rule of the day . . . except that Mike Martz ordered the out-of-town
scoreboard to be shut off after the first quarter, so his team would
concentrate on the task at hand and not the game in D.C.

Yet that didn't exactly stop the word from getting to the players.

"I didn't know what the score was," Jackson admitted. "But I know there was a
buzz on the sideline."

And if by "buzz" you mean fans bellowing updates to the players as they leaned
over the front-row railing, or public relations assistants constantly
whispering score updates, or sideline radio and television reporters diligently
providing constant play-by-play from Washington's Fed-Ex Field, then yeah,
there was a "buzz" on the sidelines.

"It got so bad that I finally started screaming at folks to just shut up," said
Rams defensive captain Tyoka Jackson. "I was like, 'No! No! No! I don't want to
hear it!'"

But as the Rams came out after halftime, the Vikings were losing in D.C., and
for just a second, it seemed like the Rams were on the verge of a
statement-making victory, entering the postseason not just on a two-game
winning streak, but on a mean streak as well.

It was early in the second half when Steven Jackson touched the ball for only
the fourth time all game, and slammed through the Jets defense like a giant
bowling ball slamming through a stack of pins. And as the powerful running back
came out of the pile, all you could see was his signature high-knee prance into
the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown that gave the Rams what seemed like an
insurmountable 21-10 lead.

Yet less than 11 seconds later, New York Jets return man Jerricho Cotchery -
whose name sounds like it was ripped out of the pages of a Dan Jenkins novel or
a grainy old spaghetti western - settled under Jeff Wilkins' kickoff at the
6-yard line and raced 94 yards through the Rams porous special teams to score a
touchdown and cut that comfortable 21-10 lead to a decidedly uncomfortable
21-17 margin.

That was followed by a string of unfortunate events that disturbed the crowd
even more. Thirty-eight seconds later, Isaac Bruce fumbled a Marc Bulger pass
and the Jets recovered. Six plays later, the Jets had cut the lead to 21-20. A
few minutes later, Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma swiped a tipped Bulger pass
and returned it 38 yards for a TD that gave the Jets a 26-21 lead.

And meanwhile, back in D.C., the Redskins had just taken a 21-10 lead.

But the Rams would not go away easily or comfortably. Martz continued to ignore
Jackson, relying instead on another fabulous passing show by Bulger, who
despite two interceptions, threw for 450 yards, three touchdowns and a stunning
116.4 pass efficiency rating. And when he found Torry Holt wide open for a
19-yard TD and Jackson followed that with a run over the left side for the
two-point conversion, the Rams were back in control at 29-26, just as the final
score of the Redskins' victory was announced on the public address system.

But as the game moved into overtime, and the clock kept ticking away - and it
honestly appeared that no one would ever score again after the frenzied
regulation shootout - the Rams wisely found a way to put the ball back into
Jackson's hands, even if it was with a pass.

They have now won two consecutive do-or-die games and turned their struggling
season of mediocrity into a second-chance dash to redemption. They have just
been given a chance to wash away any trace of that 8-8 mediocrity and maddening
unpredictability, because they are now in a Super Bowl tournament where
everyone has a 0-0 record.

"Once you get into the playoffs, everything is fair game," Jackson said,
speaking like a wise playoff veteran. "That's the feeling that we have right
here. We know, especially in these past couple of weeks, that we've been
playing good on both sides of the ball. We feel that we have as good of a
chance as anyone. We think we're peaking at the right time."