Whew! Rams make it back to playoffs
BY JEFF GORDON
Post-Dispatch Online Sports Columnist
Sunday, Jan. 02 2005

The Rams took the long, hard, circuitous route to the NFC playoffs this season.

So it’s only fitting that their clinching game wound an unpredictable course
into overtime. Jeff Wilkins finally ended it by nailing a 31-yard field goal
with 3 minutes 9 seconds left in OT as the Rams edged the New York Jets 32-29.

Along the way, the Rams blew a 21-10 third-quarter lead -– allowing a 94-yard
kickoff return for a game-turning touchdown. Rams safety Adam Archuleta dropped
a potential game-sealing interception in the final seconds of regulation play.

Jets kicker Doug Brien missed a potential game-winning 53-yard field goal in
overtime. Finally, the Rams moved in for the clinching score to secure their
fifth postseason berth in six seasons.

Whew!

The Rams (8-8) will play at Seattle in the first round of the playoffs at 3:30
p.m. Saturday (ABC TV). The Seahawks (9-7) lost both division games to the Rams
this season but won the NFC West on Sunday by beating Atlanta 28-26.

“What can I say?” Rams coach Mike Martz said afterward, with sweat still
soaking his brow. “This is the team I always felt we could be. Along the way,
so many things happened to us.

“We never quit. We never gave up. We never stopped believing.”

The Rams overcame a lost fumble, two interceptions and miserable kickoff
coverage to win the game. Quarterback Marc Bulger starred under duress,
completing 29 of 39 passes for 450 yards and two touchdowns to Torry Holt.


THE GOOD

* Hello, Bryce Fisher! On consecutive plays, the defensive end dumped Jets
running back Curtis Martin for a two-yard loss, then sacked quarterback Chad
Pennington for an 11-yard loss to end the Jets’ first possession.

* Rams defensive spokesman Tyoka Jackson sacked Pennington for a seven-yard
loss in the second quarter.

* Defensive end Leonard Little chased Pennington out of bounds for a two-yard
sack that kept the Jets from getting in range for another field goal.

* With three dramatic plays, the Air Martz offense finally got off the ground
in the second quarter. Bulger hit Kevin Curtis for 34 yards on a post-pattern,
then beat a safety blitz with a 20-yard swing pass to Steven Jackson, then
found Isaac Bruce with a pump-and-go pass for 27 yards and a touchdown.

That pushed the Rams ahead 7-3 and aroused a previously drowsy crowd at The Ed.

* Rams receiver Shaun McDonald gave Rams fans an Az-Zahir Hakim flashback with
his 33-yard catch and run with 2 minutes left in the first half. He threw a
big-time change of direction at the Jets and nearly turned it into a TD.

* Bulger bombed away to Holt for a 44-yard touchdown pass that put the Rams
ahead 14-10 with 1 minute left in the first half.

Holt became the first player in NFL history to open his career with five
consecutive 1,300-yard receiving seasons.

* Martz came right after the Jets to start the third quarter, bombing away on
a four-play, 69-yard, 90-second scoring drive. Steven Jackson finished off the
assault with a 20-yard run on a sweep around right end, pushing the Rams to a
21-10 lead.

* Fisher delivered another sack, this one for a four-yard loss in the third
quarter. That was followed by another blitz-created sack, this one by Damione
Lewis for a six-yard loss. Yes, Damione Lewis!

That moved the Jets out of scoring position and forced another punt.

* Down 26-21 in the fourth quarter, Bulger marched the Rams downfield for the
go-ahead score. He completed three big passes to Curtis, then finished with a
19-yard TD strike to Holt.

Jackson bulldozed into the end zone on the two-point conversion, moving the
Rams to a 29-26 lead.

* The Rams won the coin flip to start overtime, preventing their kickoff
coverage team from taking the field to start the sudden-death bonus frame.

* Catching the Jets completely off-balance, Bulger opened overtime with a
25-yard strike to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. Alas, the Rams could get no
further on this initial possession.

* Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett sacked Pennington for a seven-yard loss in
overtime. That play led to the Jets punting the ball back to the Rams with 9:50
left.

* Receiver Dane Looker elevated to make a 12-yard catch in overtime . . . but
the Rams couldn’t build on that play and advance into scoring position.

* Bulger moved the Rams into game-winning field goal position by feathering a
swing pass over a defender to Jackson for a 22-yard gain. Great throw by
Bulger, nice catch on the move by Jackson.


THE BAD

* An illegal block penalty on Antuan Edwards forced the Rams to start their
first possession on their 15-yard line.

* Tackle Blaine Saipaia got carried away during a third-down run and got
flagged for a personal foul penalty. That ultimately forced the Rams to punt
away the ball.

* Wilkins had to made a saving tackle on Jerricho Cotchery to keep him from
taking a second-half kickoff to the house.

* After the Rams offense scored its first touchdown, the Rams defense got
strafed by a swift six-play touchdown drive. Pennington completed all four of
his passes, good for 47 yards and a touchdown.

At this point in the game, Pennington had completed passes to nine different
receivers. Talk about good game plans . . .

* Lewis was flagged for holding on a third-quarter kick offreturn, pinning the
Rams on their own 10.

* Wilkins had to make another saving tackle on Cotchery, who nearly broke
another kickoff return for a touchdown with 5 minutes to play.

Too bad Rich Coady didn’t tackle this well while filling in at safety.

* With the Jets faced with a critical third-and-6 situation, the Rams defense
allowed Martin to knife through the middle of their defense for a 10-yard gain.

* On a third-and-6 situation in overtime, the Rams allowed Pennington to
scramble out of the pocket for a 16-yard gain to keep the Jets on the move.


THE UGLY

* Bulger tried to wedge in a slant pass to McDonald in the end zone late in
the first half -– and found Jets safety Erik Coleman instead. Ouch!

* Moments after taking a 21-10 lead, the Rams allowed Cotchery to burst up the
left sideline on a 94-yard kickoff return. Try as he might, Wilkins was unable
to cut him off and make the touchdown-saving tackle.

* Bruce fumbled away the ball to the Jets on the Rams 34 early in the third
quarter, getting stripped while trying to run downfield for a first down. That
led to a 33-yard Doug Brien field goal that cut the Rams’ lead to 21-20.

* Linebacker Robert Thomas took a roughing-the-passer personal foul penalty
that moved the Jets back into scoring position in the third quarter.

* Left guard Tom Nutten had to be helped off the field after suffering a
sprained knee late in the third quarter. That put rookie Larry Turner back on
the spot.

* The Jets surged ahead 26-21 when Shaun Lewis deflected a Bulger pass,
allowing Jonathan Vilma to field an easy interception and return it 38 yards
for a touchdown.

* Archuleta dropped what would have been a game-clinching interception on the
goal line with 10 seconds left. That allowed Brien to trot out and kick the
game-tying 27-yard field and force overtime.