By RAY GLIER

Published: January 13, 2005


LOWERY BRANCH, Ga., Jan. 12 - The St. Louis Rams looked like a broken team last month. Hours before a game against the Arizona Cardinals, there were news reports that Coach Mike Martz could be fired. Martz fumed, calling the reports irresponsible and destructive. The Rams went out and were trounced by the Cardinals, 31-7, dropping their record to 6-8.

Controversy continued to churn after the game when Martz's play-calling was called irresponsible by the St. Louis news media. Martz, renowned for his innovative offense, let running back Steven Jackson, a first-round draft pick and the team's second-leading rusher this season, behind Marshall Faulk, languish on the bench during the game.

The loss came five days after a heated shouting match between Martz and offensive tackle Kyle Turley, who was placed on injured reserve before the season.

Playoffs? Not for the 6-8 Rams. They were in the checkout line of the season.

The Rams somehow regrouped, winning their last two games of the regular season, including an overtime victory over the Jets, to qualify for the playoffs. Last Saturday in Seattle, they repelled the Seahawks in the waning seconds to secure a 27-20 victory in the National Football Conference wild-card round.

As the Rams prepared to face the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Saturday in a divisional playoff game, Martz said the return of quarterback Marc Bulger was the key to the turnaround.

Bulger, who injured his shoulder in a victory over San Francisco on Dec. 5, was sidelined the next two games; the Rams lost both, and the offense scored just one touchdown. Since his return Dec. 27 against the Eagles, Bulger has completed 68 percent of his passes and has thrown six touchdown passes.

"Getting Marc back was very significant to this team," Martz said Wednesday in a conference call. "When he was hurt, he was playing at such a high level. We just had to have better play at the quarterback position at that point."

The Falcons have marveled over Bulger's ability to read a defense and run through a progression of receivers until he finds a target. That is why Atlanta will disguise coverages and try to pressure him out of the pocket.

"I can't think of another guy, besides Peyton Manning possibly, who could run that offense as well as he does," Atlanta safety Bryan Scott said. "He definitely comes off his first receiver to his second and even sometimes to his third. And if that's not there sometimes, then he'll dip it down to Marshall Faulk or Steven Jackson.

"I think what makes that offense so amazing is that he doesn't call audibles," Scott added. "They pretty much go off what they see, so the receiver and the quarterback have to see the same thing. That's really cool to me."

Another factor in the Rams' resurgence was the steadying influence of Martz and the team's ownership after reports that his job was in jeopardy.

"It was erroneous; it was never an issue here," Martz said. "That was completely bogus."

The Rams' owner, Georgia Frontiere, wrote a letter supporting Martz, and a copy was put in each player's locker. "It solidified everything," Martz said.

While it might seem preposterous that the Rams are a victory away from the N.F.C. championship game, there are logical reasons for the turnaround. The offensive line, in a state of flux since the start of training camp with poor play and injuries to two starters, Turley and Orlando Pace, has jelled.

"The last month or so, there's finally been five guys who have been able to work together and get better, and I think that cohesion has been important on the line," Martz said.

The Rams also have a third receiver in Kevin Curtis to complement wideouts Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. While Bruce and Holt attack the safeties, Curtis has been working underneath and has 10 catches for 206 yards in the last two games.

Suddenly, the offense that was once called the Greatest Show on Turf has regained its reputation.

The defense, meanwhile, has been overhauled and Martz said it does not resemble the unit that was ranked 29th in the league in run defense. The Rams held Seattle All-Pro running back Shaun Alexander to 40 yards.

The St. Louis defense, ranked 28th in the league at midseason, finished the season ranked No. 17. A unit that had 19 sacks the first 11 games of the season has 15 in the last five games.

"We're much better," Martz said. "The things that used to be problems are no longer problems."