By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Sunday, Jan. 16 2005

One of the story lines leading into Saturday's NFC semifinal game in Atlanta
was that this was a different Rams team, the inference being that things would
be different in the rematch of the meeting Sept. 19 in the Georgia Dome.

Well, things were different all right ... different as in worse. Not different
as in better:

In September, the Rams yielded 242 yards rushing to the Falcons, the
second-worst total since the franchise moved to St. Louis in 1995.

On Saturday, the Falcons rushed for 327 yards against the Rams. In the 74-year
history of Rams football, that's the fifth-worst performance in either a
regular-season or postseason game.

Think about that for a moment. Nearly three-quarters of a century of Rams
football, encompassing nearly 1,000 regular-season and postseason contests -
970, to be exact. And on only four previous occasions was a Rams football team
more porous against the run.

"We just couldn't stop it," defensive end Leonard Little said. "With (Michael)
Vick, it really gets you back on your heels because you just don't know if he's
going to run or throw. They really had their thing going."

In September against Atlanta, special teams were a problem for the Rams. The
unit committed two costly penalties and got fooled on an onside kick.

On Saturday, special teams were a disaster. Allen Rossum's 152 yards on three
punt returns set an NFL postseason record.

"There is no excuse for anything that we allowed him to do," Rams special
teamer Mike Furrey said. "He succeeded, and we didn't."

That's for sure. And after Atlanta's 47-17 drubbing of the Rams, Falcons coach
Jim Mora made sure everyone was aware of that fact.

"We just don't pay lip service to special teams," Mora said. "I think with the
attention we pay to it, and they don't, that was a big difference. We live it,
and they don't."

Despite more embarrassing moments by left tackle Orlando Pace against Falcons
defensive end Brady Smith - among them a fourth-quarter sack for a safety - the
offensive line actually performed better this time around. So did the offense,
even without wide receiver Isaac Bruce, a pregame scratch with a stomach-groin
muscle injury.

But that wasn't nearly enough to overcome the largesse on special teams and
rush defense. In hindsight, the play of the Rams' defensive line wasn't all
that bad Saturday.

Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy didn't play as much as normal because of
soreness in the foot that was fractured in training camp. That meant Damione
Lewis played more than usual, and played decently. So did Ryan Pickett.

But the play of the Rams' back seven was atrocious in run support. Rams
linebackers routinely got trapped inside or were caught over-pursuing. As for
the secondary, a calculator is necessary to compute the number of missed
tackles - both at the safety and cornerback positions.

Even disregarding his dropped interception in the first half, this was Antuan
Edwards' worst game at free safety for the Rams. At cornerback, the one
remaining liability in Jerametrius Butler's game - run support - also was
exposed by the Falcons.

But even given the problems in run defense, the Rams might have been able to
keep pace were it not for Rossum's three big punt returns.

As quarterback Marc Bulger said, "When they make three (big) special teams
plays and only have to go 20 yards to score touchdowns, there's not much you
can do."

One of Rossum's three long returns carried to the Rams 32. Another carried to
the Rams 13. And of course, there was the 68-yarder up the middle for what
proved to be a back-breaking touchdown late in the second quarter.

But beyond the particulars of the game, the Rams' defeat underscored how
difficult it is for wild-card teams to defeat teams that have the benefit of
the first-round bye.
All four home teams, well-rested from the bye, won this weekend. While the
Rams, Colts, Jets and Vikings slugged it out during wild-card weekend, the
Falcons, Steelers, Patriots and Eagles rested and healed.

"You could tell that (the Rams) were playing hard," Atlanta center Todd McClure
said. "But they just didn't have the juice in their legs that we did."

Bulger and coach Mike Martz conceded as much, although not offering it as an
excuse.

"I think we played a little tired at times," Bulger said.

Martz said: "There's no question there was (fatigue), but that's the hand
that's dealt to you."

Particularly when you squeak into the playoffs at 8-8. The NFL playoff system
is designed to reward the best teams and make things difficult for the Nos. 5
and 6 seeds. And that helps explain why NFC teams with first-round byes are
27-3 in the conference semifinal round since the current playoff format started
in 1990.