BY JEFF GORDON
Post-Dispatch Online Sports Columnist
Saturday, Jan. 15 2005

The Atlanta Falcons are a very sound, very tough football team. And the Rams,
despite all their late-season progress, are not.

The Rams could not stop the run Saturday night. Nor could they cover punts.

So the Falcons will roll into the NFC Championship Game after thrashing the
Rams 47-17 at the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons ground the Rams defense into little bits, opening huge seams for
running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. In the first half alone, the
Falcons rushed for 239 yards.

Two hundred and thirty-nine in one half! The Falcons finished with 327 rushing
yards, averaging a whopping 8.2 yards per carry.

Quarterback Michael Vick beat Larry Marmie’s defense with his feet AND his arm,
scrambling out of trouble to make big plays downfield.

Mix in some more horrendous special teams play by the Rams -- surprise,
surprise -- and they were doomed.

Quarterback Marc Bulger tried to rally his team, but the mounting deficit, the
absence of receiver Isaac Bruce (groin strain) and the loss of guard Tom Nutten
(sprained knee) made the comeback impossible.

As the game got away, the Rams became submissive and accepted a terrible
beating from the Falcons. The defensive front seven surrendered and the
offensive line allowed Bulger to get tossed around like a crash test dummy.


THE GOOD


* With Bruce sidelined, the Rams needed more from Marshall Faulk –- and he
quickly established himself by running for 24 yards on the Rams’ first four
plays of the game.


* That rushing success set up Bulger’s play-action bomb to Kevin Curtis -–
good for 57 yards and the game-tying touchdown.


* On the Falcons’ second possession, safety Antuan Edwards made a nice break
on a Vick pass -– and nearly picked it off for a touchdown. Vick and Edwards
both wanted that play back.


* Linebacker Tommy Polley made a nice break on Vick's next throw, breaking up
a pass meant for tight end Alge Crumpler.


* On a 21-yard third-down completion to Curtis, Bulger got exceptional
protection from his offensive line.


* Rookie running back Steven Jackson finally got rolling with two carries for
14 yards, propelling the Rams back toward scoring position.


* Bulger kept the Rams alive with his pump-and-throw 28-yard touchdown pass to
Torry Holt. That allowed the Rams to cut the Falcons’ lead to 21-14.


* With the Falcons marching toward another score, Polley pounced on a break
when an untouched Vick stumbled, fell and fumbled away the ball.


* Jeff Wilkins buried a 55-yard field goal as the first half expired, cutting
the Falcons’ lead to 28-17.


* Defensive end Leonard Little finally sacked Vick, dumping him for a 14-yard
loss in the third quarter.


* Receiver Dane Looker got back on the radar screen, moving up the depth chart
because of Bruce’s injury. Is there a better fifth receiver in the game?


THE BAD


* Bruce tested his balky groin muscle during pre-game warm-ups, but he was
unable to play. Bummer.


* Right off the top, the Rams got caught over-pursuing the elusive Vick -– who
reversed his field on a 47-yard scramble on just the third play from scrimmage.
That didn’t take long . . .


* That big run set up Vick’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Crumpler. Atlanta led
7-0 just 2 minutes 50 seconds into the game.


* The defense got gashed for Dunn’s 62-yard touchdown run. A simple cutback,
some missed arm tackles (come on, Jerametrius Butler) and, whoosh, Dunn was
gone. The Falcons led 14-7 midway through the first period.


* Cornerback Kevin Garrett cost the Rams 19 yards by failing to down a punt on
the Atlanta 1. Inexplicably, he backed up to the goal line before making his
play. Son, always know where you are on the field.


* On Dunn’s 19-yard touchdown run, the Rams’ front seven got gashed again.
Dunn walked through a gaping hole and the Falcons had an early 21-7 lead.

Once again, the Rams defense did not adjust to the Falcons’ alignment -–
allowing Atlanta blockers to outnumber potential Rams tacklers on the right
side of the field. How does that happen?


* Nutten’s knee finally gave out in the first quarter, forcing Mike Martz to
call on rookie Larry Turner to play left guard.


* On the last Rams possession of the first half, tackle Orlando Pace yielded
five yards on a false start penalty, then allowed Bulger to take a horrific hit
from behind by quitting on his pass block.


* In still another lunk-headed play by the special teams, tight end Brandon
Manumaleuna went back and tried to field the opening kickoff of the second
half. He crashed into return specialist Aveion Cason, forcing the Rams to start
the half on their 10-yard line.

What is it about YOU’RE A BLOCKER that this knucklehead didn’t pick up in the
special teams meeting?


* On the Rams’ first third-down play of the second half, Jackson dropped an
easy pass and forced the Rams to punt. This blunder, combined with some
tip-toeing on earlier runs, made you wonder about Jackson’s toughness.


* Martz burned another timeout with another futile replay challenge, this time
in the third quarter.


* Receiver Shaun McDonald killed a third-quarter possession by taking an
offensive pass interference penalty.


* With his desperation mounting, Bulger threw a bomb into heavy coverage and
got picked off by cornerback Jason Webster.


* The battered Bulger took a crushing blow from linebacker Keith Brooking to
start the fourth quarter, coughing up a fumble in the process. Bulger will be
sore for months after taking this beating.


* Pace allowed Falcons defensive end Brady Smith to sprint past and sack
Bulger for the safety that made it 40-17. Perhaps Smith got off the line a
split second early, but Pace did NOT distinguish himself in this game.


THE UGLY


* After the Rams did nothing with Polley’s fumble recovery -– failing to get a
first down -- they suffered a fatal special teams disaster. The Rams' punt
coverage team fell for a fake lateral play and opened up the middle of the
field for Allen Rossum’s 68-yard touchdown return.

Idiots!


* On Rossum’s first punt return of the second half, he scampered 39 yards
through the hapless Rams coverage team. That sent the Falcons rolling toward
another TD, this one on a six-yard Vick pass to Peerless Price.


* On Rossum’s next punt return, he rolled 44 yards to put the Falcons right
back into scoring position. Did the Rams decide to use Girl Scouts on their
punt coverage teams? Geez.