By Bryan Burwell
Of the Post-Dispatch
Saturday, Jan. 08 2005

SEATTLE - As the giant scoreboard inside Qwest Field ticked off the final,
exhilarating, excruciating seconds of this woolly NFC wild-card playoff game,
65,397 distraught witnesses to this recurring nightmare could not believe their
eyes.

It was happening again, the same anguish, the same disgust, the same
gut-twisting, mind-numbing sensation that had sucked the life out of this rowdy
building three months ago. The Rams were dancing all over the field, pounding
their chests, waving their arms and taunting the folks who moments earlier were
doing the same things to the Rams.

For the third time this season, the Rams had knocked off the Seahawks, and with
each victory, the pain and suffering just seemed to get more magnified for
Seattle. First the heart-stabbing comeback, then the down-and-dirty butt
whipping, and now the history-making, decimating playoff conquest.

Rams 27, Seahawks 20.

All along the lower bowl of the stadium, sullen, blank-faced Seahawks fans just
stared out into space, unable to fathom how the Rams had come in here once
again and sucked the life out of their bodies and their once-hopeful Super Bowl
dreams. All they could do was sit with their grim, painted faces and watch as
Rams defensive tackle Damione Lewis slammed his helmet down on the 10-yard
line, then stomped his foot on the helmet like a conquering hero, folded his
arms across his chest in his best "How you like me now?" pose and mugged for
the stunned and silent crowd.

"Sweeeep, baby! SWEEEEEP!!!" said linebacker Tommy Polley as he danced through
the end-zone tunnel and raced toward the visitor's locker room. "Y'all just got
swept!!!" he crowed.

Swept, indeed. These St. Louis Rams - the same ones who had stumbled and
bumbled their way through an up-and-down 8-8 regular season and came into the
postseason as the NFL's most unwanted guests - were now dancing out of Qwest
Field with a historic victory over the poor Seahawks and their downtrodden
fans.

History tells us the Rams weren't supposed to win this game. No team in the
history of the National Football League that came into the postseason with a
.500 record had ever won a playoff game.

But now history has changed and that was because these surging and confident
young Rams didn't particularly care about history.

"Everybody talked about us all season like we were sorry," said Lewis inside
the rowdy visitor's locker room. "Well, I guess we're not sorry now, huh? What
we are is a team that's growing. We're a team that is jelling at just the right
time."

Who can argue with that? It no longer matters how inconsistent they were for
most of the regular season. It no longer matters how many injuries they had,
how many hardships they had to overcome. Those maddening losses to New Orleans,
Miami and Arizona that were supposed to have haunted them, and surely looked
like tombstones, now are beginning to look more like stepping stones.

Who knew? Who could have figured this out? Who could have imagined that the
same team that less than three weeks ago looked dead and buried is now alive
and kicking?

A year ago, they entered the postseason full of promise as 12-4 division
champs, then slumped out of the playoffs with a shocking overtime loss at home
against Carolina. That team broke a lot of hearts in St. Louis, because those
Rams looked like they could go all the way to the Super Bowl. But these Rams
never had that look. These Rams looked lost for so much of the season.

"Yeah, we were 8-8," guard Tom Nutten said. "There's no denying that. There's
no pretending that the season didn't happen. But you know what? Right now that
just doesn't matter. And you know why? Because the regular season is over and
all that matters now is that we're 1-0 (in the playoffs) and we're going to be
playing football next week."

They're 1-0 because of a defense that has suddenly found itself, shutting down
Seattle running back Shaun Alexander, the NFL's second-leading rusher. The same
Alexander who had gashed the Rams for more than 300 yards on the ground in
their first two meetings, was shut down Saturday, gaining 40 yards on 2.7 yards
per carry. They're 1-0 because of a cool-hand quarterback named Marc Bulger who
is trying to make a postseason name for himself, leading the Rams on a
clock-killing game-winning, come-from-behind scoring drive that gave the Rams a
27-20 lead on a perfect 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cam Cleeland.

But perhaps most of all, they're 1-0 in the postseason because of an embattled
head coach named Mike Martz who keeps finding ways to resurrect his feisty
team.

"I guess this must mean we have a good coach, huh?" said wide receiver Isaac
Bruce as he sat in a quiet corner of the raucous Rams locker room.

The Rams are alive because they believed they could come in here and win, even
if most of the football world felt they didn't deserve to be at the Super Bowl
party. But the Rams are surging now, full of confidence after consecutive
victories over the Eagles, Jets and Seahawks. They do not look like the Rams we
are used to seeing in the playoffs, those fast and furious Rams who outscored
everyone and left the world admiring their brilliance.

"Sure it doesn't look as good as years past," said Lewis as he walked toward
the team bus. "But we're winning, we're still alive and right now that's all
that matters, isn't it? We're a team climbing the ladder instead of falling
down the ladder."