However, more than any other term that could paint a picture of the Rams biggest victory in three years, one that rightly should be included in a list of the most exciting games in the Rams ten St. Louis seasons, this game was one of pure resolve.
Resolve is a term head coach Mike Martz has used over and over during this tumultuous 8-8 campaign, mainly to describe how his team, and others in the parity filled NFL, could lift themselves up to overcome their own particular misfortunes. Martz told the media back in camp that this team faced some real growing pains, especially after injuries decimated the offensive line, the key to their high powered passing offense.
Unfortunately, those who either underestimated the Rams talent, or hate anything Martz says or does, would not accept the fact that the Rams were a work in progress. Though the team is hardly at a Championship level, there is no doubt that they improved as the season progressed, especially on defense. Unfortunately the Rams MVP, quarterback Marc Bulger, was injured in early December, and that put the Rams in a seemingly impossible hole, just as the defense started to play better.
The Rams will travel to meet the Seattle Seahawks Saturday, rather than playing at home, only because Falcons halfback Warrick Dunn was stopped inches short of a two-point conversion that would have sent their game Sunday in Seattle to overtime, and given the Rams a shot at winning the NFC West.
Nothing that has happened in 2004 or the next few weeks should dim the promise exhibited by the young Rams squad against a 10-5 Jets team that needed a win until late in the third quarter when the Bills had lost to the Steelers. Apparently, the Jets head coach, Herm Edwards, either didn’t know his team was in win or lose, or didn’t care. The starters played on, and the hard hitting that was constant in the entire game went on to the bitter end.
Early in the third, it appeared that the Rams were in solid control of the game, after rookie running back Steven Jackson scored on a 20-yard run to give the Rams a 21-10 lead after the Rams initial possession of the second half. However, the momentum of that unusual third quarter scoring drive for the Rams offense was short lived, because the Rams kick coverage continued to be an anchor for the team. Martz admitted his anger at the unit after the game, and admitted that his team’s further chances could hinge on repairing it.
A rookie returner named Jericho Cotchery became the latest to burn the Rams porous coverage team, as he zipped through a huge hole so easily that he had a blocker left to level the Rams best special teams tackler, kicker Jeff Wilkins, on the way to a 94-yard touchdown. After that stunning play silenced the sellout crowd in the Edward D. Jones dome, the Rams went into what seemed to be a never-ending funk.
First, Isaac Bruce fumbled after a catch inside Rams territory appeared to get the offense out of a hole created by yet another poor effort by the Rams return team. Fortunately, the Rams defense, playing their best game of the season, kept the Rams ahead by forcing the Jets to settle for a field goal to make the score 21-20. However, it wasn’t long before disaster hit the Rams offense again, this time so hard that the defense could do nothing to save them.
While some may feel the Rams got “lucky” to get into postseason, they certainly have had few lucky bounces in a star-crossed season, and their bad fortune continued when a quick slant pass by Marc Bulger was tipped by defensive end Shaun Ellis directly to MLB Jonathan Vilma, who dashed nearly untouched to a go ahead score with just over a minute left in the third quarter. The Rams defense did make a big play on the two-point conversion that followed, however, which turned out to be huge.
Bulger again defined resolve with his ability to overcome plays like the Vilma pick, and again led the Rams to a fourth quarter comeback. Bulger threw for 450 yards in one of his best games with the Rams, and his perfect 44-yard bomb to Torry Holt had given the Rams a 14-10 lead just before the half. However, he saved his best for the fourth quarter and overtime.
First, Bulger took the team 59 yards to regain the lead, finishing the drive with his second touchdown pass to Holt, who became the first NFL receiver to record five straight 1300-yard plus seasons with a 7 catch 116-yard effort. Unable to run the ball effectively against the Jets talented defensive front seven, Martz went to the air. Bulger spread the ball around to nine different receivers, including second year pro Kevin Curtis, who had his best game as a pro, catching 6 passes for 99 yards.
Curtis came up big Sunday, like so many younger Rams players who stepped up to make contributions to the late season effort, after Bruce left the game with a hip contusion. Bruce later returned, and ended his day with five receptions for 86 yards.
The biggest catch of the day may have been the 22-yard, perfectly executed swing pass to Jackson late in overtime that set the Rams up for Jeff Wilkins
31-yard game winner. Bulger beat a Jets blitz and floated the ball perfectly to Jackson, who galloped into easy range for the kicker they call “Money” down at Rams Park. Jackson had another strong game, though a sore knee and the Jets front wall made rushing the ball difficult all game.
The winning drive came on the Rams third overtime possession, after a 53-yard try by Jets’ kicker Doug Brien was barely wide right. The Rams defense, led by DT Ryan Pickett, who was credited with seven tackles on the day, snuffed the Jets offense two times from their 35 before Brien’s unsuccessful kick that had the dome crowd holding their collective breaths.
The team gave a game ball to the entire line, and it was richly deserved, after a six-sack performance, two by DE Bryce Fisher, the NFC defensive player of the week just six days earlier. The league’s leading rusher, Curtis Martin, was able to grind out 153 yards on 28 carries, but he paid a price for each yard, and the rejuvenated ten year veteran never got into the end zone.
Not many analysts are giving the Rams much chance to go far in the playoffs, or even to beat the Seahawks, despite the fact that they have already dropped two games to St. Louis this season. However, as Mike Martz said in his Monday press conference, the playoffs are about who is playing best in late December, not who was tough in September.
No one should rule out anything happening now that the Rams and eleven other NFL teams still playing are tied with 0-0 records. Not after this victory born of resolve, won despite being –3 in turnovers, despite being out rushed by 133 yards, despite having one kickoff returned for a score and two more taken beyond the 40 yard line, despite losing their left guard, Tom Nutten, to a knee injury, despite having safety Adam Archuleta drop a sure pick that would have won the game in regulation, despite a blown 11 point second half lead, despite a few bad officials calls, and at least one criminal non-call on an obvious spear by Jets LB Eric Barton to the back of a prone Bulger, despite all the storm surrounding the team and it’s coach.