Rams 45, Packers 17

Monday, January 21st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Members of the St. Louis Rams kept running into the end zone with the football, just as they always do. There was one significant difference: These were Rams defenders scoring all those points.

Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt got touchdowns, too, as did seldom-used fullback James Hodgins. They, and league MVP Kurt Warner, were overshadowed, however, by Aeneas Williams, Tommy Polley and the rest of the vastly improved St. Louis defense.

All-Pro cornerback Williams led the way by returning two interceptions for touchdowns, an NFL playoff record, in a 45-17 rout of the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. The overwhelming ball-hawking display against Brett Favre, along with the Rams' usual offensive theatrics, lifted St. Louis into its second NFC championship game in three years.

Next Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles come to the Dome at America's Center, and they'd better be more careful with the ball than the Packers were.

``I think people that know are giving us our due,'' said Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, as responsible as anyone for the defense's turnaround from sieve to third-stingiest in the league. ``If we keep playing well, more and more people will recognize us.''

Williams, long recognized as one of the NFL's premier coverage men, finally is with a team worthy of his skills. He spent 10 years with the Cardinals, playing in just two postseason games. But he now has five interceptions in the playoffs, including Sunday's TD runbacks of 29 and 32 yards _ plus a fumble recovery when he stripped Antonio Freeman of the ball.

``We knew because Brett is so confident he could get the ball in there, we would get some chances,'' Williams said. ``A lot of defenders miss those torpedoes he has thrown. We knew the key was to catch them when we had chances.

``During the regular season, teams aren't taking as many risks. In the playoffs, teams are more prone to try to win games.''

And the Rams won with a rebuilt unit that forced Favre into the most interceptions of his career _ and the most in a playoff game since 1955. The three interception return TDs tied an NFL postseason record set in 1940 in Chicago's 73-0 victory over Washington.

``It's not one of my better days,'' Favre said. ``People on the plane will say if we would have done this or we wouldn't have done that. Like I always say, if a chicken had lips, he could whistle.''

Polley, a second-round pick from Florida State, went 34 yards for his touchdown and added another interception. Kim Herring and Dexter McCleon also picked off passes, while Adam Archuleta, another rookie, recovered a fumble in Green Bay's worst playoff loss.

``Hey, I got used to this in college,'' Polley said of lopsided wins in critical games. ``We didn't lose a lot there and I came here, where we win a lot, too.''

Usually, they win with a prolific offense that scored 503 points this year. Led by Warner and Offensive Player of the Year Faulk, that offense has been the Rams' calling card.

And it certainly provided some highlights in the divisional playoff game. Warner had TD passes of 4 yards to Holt and Hodgins, who had all of six touches this season. Faulk had a 7-yard scoring run and accounted for 129 total yards. Warner threw for 216 yards, including a gorgeous 50-yarder to Holt.

But Warner was quick to recognize the defense's role Sunday.

``It was awesome,'' Warner said. ``It's a great luxury to know you don't have to force plays. We could get off the field and let our defense play.''

Even when the Packers did something special, they hurt themselves. Torrance Marshall was called for holding, negating Allen Rossum's 95-yard kickoff return TD. Freeman caught 22-yard and 8-yard TD passes from Favre, but he also had the costly fumble. Ahman Green ran for 94 yards, but also lost a fumble and tipped two of the passes that were intercepted.

The Rams simply had too many weapons on both sides of the ball.

``In all my years of coaching,'' the Rams' Mike Martz said, ``I don't know if I've ever seen a defensive performance like that. It is truly remarkable. It's hard not to get choked up about it.''

Usually, that's how Martz feels about his offense.