By Lynn Zinser
The New York Times

SEATTLE -- No matter what happens to them, no matter how much melodrama their coach drags them through, the St. Louis Rams still carry themselves like a championship team. Never mind that their Super Bowl victory is now 5 years old. Forget that they stumbled to a .500 record this season. The Rams believed into the final seconds of Saturday's wild-card game that Seattle had no business beating them.
"We all looked at each other and thought, 'We're not going to lose this game, no matter what happens,"' Rams defensive end Anthony Hargrove said. "We were going to stop them."

So when Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's final pass bounced out of the hands of receiver Bobby Engram and hit the end-zone turf, preserving a 27-20 St. Louis victory, the Rams walked off the field with a swagger that may have seemed strange to anyone but them.

They had become the first 8-8 team to win an NFL playoff game. They were coming off a bizarre season: Their owner, Georgia Frontiere, wrote the team a letter affirming the authority of coach Mike Martz, and Martz called NFL security after a heated exchange with injured offensive lineman Kyle Turley.

After dodging a snowstorm that had been predicted to hit Seattle, the game was played outdoors in the cold, never conducive to St. Louis's high-flying style. But the Rams always had the edge over Seattle in one crucial department: self-esteem.

"I think this game was about respect," Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander said. "They didn't respect our game and expected to win. That's the confidence that comes from a championship team."

The Rams used that confidence to mount their winning drive in the fourth quarter, needing only seven plays to march 76 yards in 3 minutes. Quarterback Marc Bulger confidently zipped a 17-yard pass to tight end Cam Cleeland with 2 minutes, 11 seconds left, although Cleeland had not caught a pass the entire game.

"If you want somebody in the foxhole when it counts, somebody to take that last shot at the buzzer, you want it to be Marc," Martz said. "It's just pure and simple, you want that guy in the game."

Bulger completed three passes on that drive, including a 31-yarder to Kevin Curtis to convert a third-and-2 and the touchdown, which came on third-and-3. It was vintage St. Louis, the kind of offense that befuddled the Seahawks in the two regular-season meetings, both won by the Rams.

The drama did not end with the Rams' touchdown. Seattle got the ball back and promptly marched downfield.

On the first play of the drive, Hasselbeck hit tight end Itula Mili for 19 yards. After Darrell Jackson caught a 20-yard pass and Mili grabbed another for 14 yards, the Seahawks were at the Rams' 11 with 46 seconds left. But Hasselbeck got sacked, threw an incomplete pass, then hit Engram underneath to reach the 5. That is when Hasselbeck's final pass, thrown only after he had eluded the Rams' pass rush, hit Engram in the hands and fell incomplete.

Hasselbeck dejectedly walked off the field as the Seahawks fans, howling only seconds earlier, milled silently toward the exits.

"I wish I had it back," Hasselbeck said. "It was the last play, and the ball was in my hands. I should have done something with it."

Seattle is more than familiar with such heartache. The franchise has not won a playoff game since 1984, and this team seemed an unlikely outfit to turn those fortunes around.

These Seahawks might have even outdone the Rams for tortured melodrama this season. Coach Mike Holmgren has been nearly as embattled as Martz, having to give up his duties as general manager and watching his supposed Super Bowl contender dissolve in a sea of injuries and lost confidence.

Then, just after Seattle had defied the odds by winning the NFC West, they endured Alexander's rant about falling a yard short of the NFL rushing title, a failure he initially blamed on Holmgren for not giving him the ball for one final play. Later in the week, several Seahawks players fought outside their locker room after a practice.

But this day was all about the Rams and confirmation of what they already believed: They were a good team, a Super Bowl contender that took a little more time than usual to show its true colors.

"At this point, the strong survive and the others fall away," Martz said.