Saints on receiving end as St Louis show toughness to secure spot in playoffs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2001, 12:00am

What is it with the St Louis Rams and Monday night? The Rams did more than spank their mouthiest NFC West rivals, the New Orleans Saints. The Rams did this, too: They won a spot in the NFL playoffs, they showed off for a national TV audience, and they shook their Monday night demons.

Since coming to St Louis, the Rams are 5-7 in prime time nationally televised regular-season games, including the Rams' workmanlike 34-21 win over the Saints. Even from my spot on the couch, this was a nice-looking victory: Kurt Warner had one of his best games as a Ram, with four touchdown passes; Isaac Bruce was a terror in the Saints secondary; and the defence held on well enough for the Rams' 11th win.

'[Mike] Martz thinks of the jugular as an appetiser,' ABC commentator Dennis Miller said as the Rams rode roughshod over the Saints.

The Rams improved to 3-3 in Monday night games the last two seasons, with a 2-4 record in Sunday night and Thursday night games since the Rams started playing in St Louis in 1995. More importantly, the Rams improved to 7-0 on the road this year, testament to the toughness of a team who somehow got a 'finesse' tag hung on them earlier this year.

'It doesn't make any difference to me whether we're playing on Monday night, or whether the whole world is watching or not,' Rams quarterback Kurt Warner said before the game in New Orleans. 'We need to make a statement with the way we play, not for everybody else out there, but for this football team.'

The statement was this: Take that, you Saints. Warner was nearly perfect, Bruce was dominating, and the defence held the Saints down despite injuries to most of the St Louis secondary.

Not even a group of uncouth New Orleans fans - throwing beer bottles on the field to protest a Saints penalty before the Rams' field goal halfway though the final quarter - could put a damper on this St Louis win.

Not even a couple of Rams turnovers could do that, either - chief among them a first-half fumbled punt by Az-Zahir Hakim.

Aggravating to Rams fans, entertaining to Miller and his buddies in the ABC booth. 'Some teams turn it over because they're tight,' Miller said. 'The Rams turn it over because they're in a hurry to get somewhere else.'

This is where they got - in the playoffs for the third straight season, hoping this year to make one more trip to New Orleans. That would be on February 6, when Super Bowl XXXVI is held at the Superdome.

At 11-2, the Rams have the inside track to homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs. 'They play with a lot of confidence, a lot of attitude,' said ABC reporter Eric Dickerson, a former Ram and an NFL Hall of Famer. 'Last year, they didn't have attitude.'

If anybody had an attitude, it seemed to be the 7-6 Saints, who botched an onside kick that led to the first Rams touchdown. Then they messed up a trick play when place-kicker John Carney didn't get a first down on a run out of kick formation with seven minutes left before half-time.

'I think somebody's lost their mind, and that's the man,' ABC analyst Dan Fouts said of Saints head coach Jim Haslett after the Carney misadventure. '[He's] going to the gimmick plays that he detests - twice tonight now. The onside kick didn't work [either].'