Rams' swagger returns for playoffs
Martz says club has 'enthusiasm' entering postseason
BY STEVE KORTE
ST. LOUIS - In a manner of speaking, the St. Louis Rams won the lottery by making the NFC playoffs with an 8-8 record.
Only eight teams prior to this season had ever qualified for the playoffs without a winning record.
The Vikings and the Rams, who play the Seattle Seahawks at 3:15 p.m. Saturday at Qwest Field, have raised that number to 10 teams.
"If we continue to grow like we have in the last two weeks, anything is possible," Rams coach Mike Martz said of his team making an extended playoff run. "I'm exciting about the potential. The possibilities are interesting."
The Rams' playoff berth becomes even more improbable when you take into account such mitigating factors as:
• They had the worst takeaway-giveaway ratio in the NFL this season.
• They had the worst special teams in the NFL this season.
• They got routed by two of the NFL's worst teams -- the Miami Dolphins (4-12) and the Arizona Cardinals (6-10).
"Sometimes you have roller-coaster seasons, and unfortunately, we are in the midst of one," Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce said. "The best thing is that we are on a high right now."
The Rams ended the regular season at minus-24 in takeaway-giveaway ratio with 39 giveaways and only 15 takeaways.
The next closest team was the San Francisco ***** with a minus-19 giveaway-takeaway ratio. Of course, the ***** had the worst record in the NFL at 2-14.
"I don't know," Martz said of his team's turnover disparity. "I know we had a run with Chris (Chandler) with quite a few interceptions, and I think that you just kind of take that out. Obviously, we need to take the ball away more defensively. We lost a lot of fumbles with receivers this year, which is very unusual. Some of those things I can't explain, to be honest with you."
Chandler had eight interceptions in his two starts, but that doesn't explain how the Rams went from an NFL-leading 46 takeways last season to an NFL-low 15 takeaways this season.
The Rams nearly pulled off an unwanted grand slam in special teams as they ranked 32nd in kickoff coverage, 31st in kickoff and punt returns and 30th in punt coverage this season.
"There is some issues," Martz said of his special teams. "Some of it, is personnel, some of it is coaching. And, I think we can resolve both of those."
The Rams had been using several defensive starters on special teams in recent weeks, but they got away from that during their 32-29 overtime win over the New York Jets on Sunday.
The Rams surrendered a 94-yard kickoff return to Jerricho Cotchery in the game.
"We had to take some (starters) off (special teams) because they were tired," Martz said, "We'll have some people up in there. We'll get Nick Burley up, I think. It's a personnel issue to some extent, but we have to know what we are asking these guys to do, too. It's a mix of both (personnel and coaching)."
Place-kicker Jeff Wilkins was one the real bright spot on special team as he connected on 20 of 25 field goals. He also had eight special teams tackles.
"Thank God we have him, really," Martz said of Wilkins. "It's not a good statement when your kicker is your leading tackler on the kickoff coverage. That's a very, very difficult issue, and one that has to get resolved if we are going to have any success in the playoffs."
The Rams got drubbed by the Dolphins 31-14 on Oct. 24 and the Cardinals 31-7 on Dec. 19. They managed to offset those two road losses by going 6-2 at home this season.
Martz said the noisy crowd at the Edward Jones Dome played a key role in the win over the Jets.
"It was easily as loud from a crowd standpoint as I've ever heard our crowd," Martz said. "It was a significant reason in why our guys where in this all the way through. It kept our guys rejuvenated, fired up and excited. I took my head set off in the fourth quarter or the overtime to turn around and talk to a couple of coaches about some things we were doing on defense, and I didn't realize it was as loud as it was. It hurt my ears."
The Rams have reason for optimism going into the playoffs. They're riding a two-game winning streak, running backs Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson are getting healthy after being bothered by knee injuries and their defense has risen from 29th to 17th in the NFL rankings in the last six weeks.
"You guys call it swagger, I call it enthusiasm," Martz said of his team's confidence right now. "They just can't wait to get out on the field. That part of it is back. 'Throw me the ball.' That's what is really fun."
Only eight teams that didn't win their division have ever reached the Super Bowl, with the Baltimore Ravens being the last team to accomplish the feat in Super Bowl XXXV in 2000.
But, don't discount Rams, who have already beaten the odds just by making the playoffs.
"It's the playoffs," Bruce said. "Anything can happen, anything goes, pretty much like the NCAA Tournament."