by Gerry Brown
This is what they're playing for:
the Lombardi Trophy.
Nobody—but nobody had this matchup picked. Before the season started the St. Louis Rams were 100-to-1 shots in Las Vegas to win the Super Bowl in 2000. That was before their starting quarterback, Trent Green, was lost for the year with a knee injury. Then they fell to 200-to-1 to win it all. USA Today handicapper Danny Sheridan had them at 5,000,000-to-1. It turned out that it was one of the best things that could have happened to Dick Vermeil's club. With Green out, a tearful Vermeil was forced to elevate his backup and NFL neophyte Kurt Warner to starter on Aug. 28.
The Tennessee Titans were an 8-8 team for the last three years and in 1999 they were playing in their fourth home stadium in as many years. Despite recent history, team owner Bud Adams was optimistic last summer saying, "I'd be real surprised if they don't play outstanding football."
For certain, the Titans are not as big a surprise to be in Super Bowl XXXIV as the Rams yet they are a decided underdog in Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Many picked the Titans to make the playoffs this year, but the overwhelming majority had a different AFC Central Division team in the biggest game of the year. The Titans disproved the pundits, beating the popular pick and division rival Jacksonville Jaguars, 33-14, in the AFC championship game.Fortuitous moves
After Rams QB Green suffered an injury in St. Louis, many observers, including Vermeil, thought the Rams' hopes of making a run at the playoffs were dashed. "It's like your wife died when you lose your quarterback," said Vermeil. "You almost start to think, well, hell, the season is over."
Super Bowl Quiz!
Super Bowl Ads are Dot-Coming
Ten Commandments of Super Bowl Parties
Pigskin Pandemonium: Super Bowl 1999
Super Bowl Results and MVPs
All-Time Super Bowl leaders
After all, their new QB was an obscure former Arena Footballer who had never even started an NFL game and had thrown exactly 11 career NFL passes. In what is easily the rags-to-riches story of the year, just four months later Warner would be named NFL MVP, and stand on the verge of leading the Rams to the franchise's first Super Bowl victory. This is a guy whose name was unknown to anyone outside of Iowa, where Warner played college ball at Univ. of Northern Iowa and then for the Arena Football League's Iowa Barnstormers. He then went to Amsterdam where he starred for the NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals.
But the promotion of Warner was not the Rams' only fortuitous move. Another big moment was the addition of Marshall Faulk from Indianapolis in the off season for a second and fifth round pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. Although Faulk's replacement in Indianapolis, Edgerrin James, had a monster rookie year, Faulk won offensive MVP honors for his career season in St. Louis. (The Colts, despite the fact that the Faulk deal was a cost-cutting measure, must be kicking themselves for letting him go so cheaply.) The former Colt became the second player ever (Roger Craig) to earn 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in one year.
Obviously when he is on the field the guy to watch is #13 Warner. His experience with the Arena Football League, where the game is played indoors on a much smaller, tighter field, has given him the ability to make quick reads on his receivers and deliver the ball decisively. Faulk, #28 is a nice release valve and familiar target out of the backfield if no one is open downfield. Faulk can also take the ball on his own for big plays.
On the opposite side of the ball look for Titans defensive end #90 Jevon Kearse. The Defensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL, Kearse has so many startling physical gifts that he's been nicknamed "the Freak." The 6-foot-4, 255-pound menace has a 86-inch wingspan, 4.4 speed in the 40, a 40-inch vertical leap and probably the biggest pair of hands you've ever seen. Kearse should be easy to recognize: he'll be the one standing over Warner when he's on his back. One guy that will be trying to prevent that, and might have a chance of succeeding, is the Rams' young left tackle #76 Orlando Pace. Pace is 6-7, 334 pounds and will need all his size and quickness to keep Kearse at bay.
When it comes to the Titan's offense, keep an eye on their statuesque running back #27 Eddie George. George, a former teammate of Pace at Ohio State, will be running the ball - that is when Titan QB #9 Steve McNair chooses not to take off with it. McNair has a strong arm, and good instincts for when to use it or when to tuck the ball away and run for that first down.
St. Louis will be roughly a touchdown and extra point favorite going into the kickoff that is set for 6:18 p.m. Sunday evening. But a lot of questions remain after their 11-6 squeaker against Tampa Bay in the NFC championship game. Will Tennessee find a way to shut down the Rams scary offense they way Tampa did? A large part of the burden will be placed on the Rams' offensive line. Can they make Kearse and his fellow pass rushers a non-factor? Will the Titans defensive backs shut down the Ram receivers and force Warner to dump it off to Faulk? Can the Titans offense keep up with the Rams offense if the Titans defense doesn't excel?
Here's the Infoplease prediction: Titans and Rams go back and forth early but the Rams score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter for a 30-21 win. Faulk has 200 total yards and 2 TDs, earning him MVP honors.