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Rams outlast Titans in Super Bowl thriller

by Jack Gallagher

ATLANTA — The St. Louis Rams outlasted the Tennessee Titans in the greatest finish in Super Bowl history Sunday, hanging on, literally, for a 23-16 victory before a crowd of 72,625 at the Georgia Dome.

The Rams dominated the first three quarters of the contest, moving the ball up and down the field nearly at will before Tennessee sprung to life like Rip van Winkle and nearly walked off with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Trailing 16-0, Tennessee rallied to tie the score on a pair of short touchdown runs by Eddie George and a 43-yard field goal by Al Del Greco before Rams quarterback Kurt Warner hit wideout Isaac Bruce on a 73-yard bomb with 1 minute, 54 seconds left that proved to be the game-winner for St. Louis.

Undaunted, the Titans drove down the length of the field on the arm and legs of quarterback Steve McNair, and fell just one yard short of tying the score on the final play of the game as Rams linebacker Mike Jones brought down Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson on the St. Louis 2-yard line as time expired.

Warner was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after throwing for a Super Bowl record 414 yards and two touchdowns. The ex-NFL Europe and Arena League player capped off what can only be termed a miraculous season by breaking Joe Montana’s record of 357 passing yards for the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The 6-2, 220-pound Iowa native stepped in for St. Louis after starter Trent Green went down in the preseason with a knee injury. When Warner was named the starter for the Rams, he had thrown a grand total of 11 passes in the NFL. He finished Sunday’s game 24-for-45, finding eight different receivers along the way.

“I feel so good and so proud of this team and how it brought home the Super Bowl trophy to St. Louis,” Rams coach Dick Vermeil said afterward. “The players did the job on the field and my coaching staff was outstanding. It was an incredible season.

“We knew it would be tough,” said Vermeil, who took a congratulatory postgame call from U.S. President Bill Clinton. “We’re the world champions and world championship games like this are tough. You have to expect a tight game in this situation, though I must say I would have preferred to win 32-0.”

The victory was especially sweet for Vermeil, who left coaching for 14 years after burning himself out in 1982 following seven seasons as the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Vermeil coached the Eagles to Super Bowl XV in 1981, but saw them blown out 27-10 by the Oakland Raiders.

Rookie wide receiver Torry Holt had a fine outing for the Rams, catching seven passes for 109 yards and a touchdown to set a Super Bowl record for receiving yards by a rookie.

“We felt like we could move the ball up and down the field all day,” said Warner. “We had a lot of shots, but the Titans brought a lot of pressure.”

Warner, who was stocking shelves at a supermarket in Iowa only five years ago, said of his performance this year, “I always believed in myself and I’ve got a whole bunch of people here that believed in me.”

Placekicker Jeff Wilkins, a real question mark for the Rams the second half of the season due to tendinitis in his non-kicking leg, booted three field goals to stake St. Louis to a 9-0 halftime lead.

George, who was kept in check by the Rams on just 18 yards rushing in the first half, energized the Titans down the stretch, barreling over tacklers to finish with 95 yards on 28 carries.

McNair was 22-for-36 for 214 yards. He rushed eight times for 64 yards, a Super Bowl record for quarterbacks.

George saluted McNair in his postgame comments, saying, “Steve is a warrior. He puts it on the line. I am very proud of him because he showed this type of heart all year long.”

McNair was philosophical in defeat.

“The bad thing about this game is that you’ve got two good teams out there fighting and somebody has to lose. Today we just came up short. The linebacker made a great play at the end, it was a one-on-one. It was just a matter of breaking a tackle and getting in the end zone.”

It was a fairly clean game as neither team had a turnover, marking only the second time in Super Bowl history that neither side has committed a miscue.

The Tennessee defense controlled St. Louis star Marshall Faulk, holding the versatile running back to 90 yards on five receptions and just 17 yards rushing on 10 carries.

The Rams took the opening kickoff and drove 51 yards, converting three straight times on third down before stalling at the Tennessee 18-yard line.

Wilkins came on to attempt a 35-yard field goal for St. Louis, but holder Mike Horan bobbled the snap and was tackled before he could get rid of the ball.

The Titans took over and gained one first down before George took a screen pass from McNair and romped 32 yards down the right sideline. He was hauled down at the St. Louis 31-yard line.

The Rams held, forcing Tennessee to attempt a 47-yard field goal by Del Greco that sailed wide left.

St. Louis took over and moved 49 yards in two plays, with Warner connecting with Holt for 32 yards on a post pattern and Faulk on a 17-yard pass over the middle to move the Rams to the Tennessee 14-yard line.

The Titans defense stiffened, and Wilkins came on to boot a 27-yard field goal that gave St. Louis a 3-0 lead with 3:00 left in the first quarter.

The Rams defense turned it up a notch following the kickoff, with linebacker London Fletcher dropping George for a one-yard loss on second down before safety Billy Jenkins got in the face of McNair on a blitz on third down, forcing an incomplete pass.

Following a punt by Tennessee, the Rams went back on the attack with Warner hitting a completely unguarded Faulk on a swing pass for 52 yards, giving the Rams first down on the Tennessee 17.

The first quarter then came to an end with the Rams holding a 3-0 advantage.

The second quarter opened with St. Louis stalling again in the red zone, unable to capitalize on the long gain by Faulk, and Wilkins came on but was wide left on a 34-yard field goal attempt.

On the ensuing possession, Tennessee gained two first downs, but saw defensive end Kevin Carter sack McNair, helping to force a punt. Jenkins flew through the line and got a hand on Craig Hentrich’s punt, but a fortuitous roll saw the Rams start their next possession on the 16-yard line.

Warner teamed up with Isaac Bruce and Holt for two completions each to again move St. Louis into scoring position, but once again the Rams could not convert and Wilkins came on to kick a 29-yard field goal to put the Rams up 6-0 lead with 4:16 left in the second quarter.

After a Tennessee punt, St. Louis marched deep into Titans’ territory as Warner hooked up with Bruce, Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl on short strikes.

Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse was then hit with a 15-yard personal foul penalty for bringing Warner down by the facemask, giving the Rams a first down on the 10-yard line. However, the Tennessee defense proved equal to the task again, forcing St. Louis to settle for a field goal. Wilkins pumped another through, this time from 28 yards to give the Rams a 9-0 lead at the half.

Warner finished the first half with 277 yards passing, connecting on 19 of 35 attempts as St. Louis outgained the Titans 294-89. Warner’s favorite target was Holt, who gained 100 yards on six receptions.

McNair was 5-for-14 for 65 yards as the St. Louis defense continually kept the pressure on him.

The Tennessee defense did a great job in the first half of keeping the Titans in the game as the Rams made it into the red zone five times but only had three field goals to show for it.

The Titans came out aggressively in the second half, taking the opening kickoff and getting three straight first downs to move into St. Louis territory. On a key third-and-5 play at the 29, McNair tried to hit George with a swing pass, but the ex-Ohio State star looked up field before putting it away and dropped the ball.

Del Greco then had his 47-yard field goal attempt blocked by Rams cornerback Todd Lyght and the Rams recovered the ball on their own 32.

The Rams again quickly moved into the Tennessee red zone, with Warner hooking up with Faulk, Bruce and Ernie Conwell to put St. Louis on the Titans’ 10-yard line.

On Conwell’s reception, safety Blaine Bishop took a nasty shot to the head as he attempted to bring the tight end down from behind at the 10 with 8:24 left in the third quarter.

Bishop lay motionless on the turf for more than 10 minutes as the Titans’ medical staff tended to him. He never moved and was placed on a stretcher and taken off by a cart.

Bishop was taken to the hospital, where X-rays on his neck proved negative. He rejoined his teammates in the locker room following the game.

Play resumed with an incompletion by Warner and a 1-yard run by Faulk before St. Louis finally found paydirt as Warner hit Holt on a slant for a touchdown. The extra point by Wilkins made it 16-0.

Following the kickoff, Tennessee moved methodically down the field, racking up several first downs before McNair broke loose for a 23-yard run that put the Titans on the St. Louis 2-yard line.

Two plays later George scored on a 1-yard run off left tackle as Tennessee finally got on the scoreboard with 0:14 left in the third quarter after a 12-play, 66-yard drive.

The Titans then elected to go for the two-point conversion, but McNair’s pass to tight end Frank Wycheck was off target.

The Rams were unable to move the ball on the ensuing possession and Horan came on for his first punt of the day.

Tennessee again moved down the field, eating up the clock with efficient runs by George and short passes by McNair. The Titans converted on fourth and inches at their own 43 as McNair took a quarterback sneak and was able to move the ball just enough to move the chains.

McNair then hit wide receiver Isaac Byrd for a 21-yard gain as the Titans closed in. George finished off the 13-play, 79-yard drive with a sensational two-yard run, refusing to be brought down despite being in the grasp of defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina. Television replays appeared to show that George’s knee had touched down on the play, but the officials didn’t see it that way and the touchdown stood.

The prolific attack of the Rams was held in check again by Tennessee on the next possession, going three plays and out for the second straight drive and forcing Horan to punt. The Titans then got a break as Horan’s punt took a Tennessee bounce, suddenly hitting reverse and going for only 30 yards.

The Titans got a first down as McNair turned a pass play into a 10-yard gain, then picked up a lucky bounce as tight end Jackie Harris caught a short pass from McNair. Harris fumbled and saw the ball recovered by Dyson.

On third and 7 at the St. Louis 25-yard line, McNair threw an incomplete pass and Del Greco came on to punch through a 47-yard field goal and tie the game 16-16 with 2:12 left.

Tony Horne returned the Tennessee kickoff to the 27 and then, on the first play from scrimmage, Warner went up top, underthrowing Bruce on a fly pattern up the right side. The wily veteran came back for the ball and hauled it in at the 35-yard line and cut back to the middle, galloping untouched for the score.

“With the score tied, I knew somebody had to make a play,” said Bruce, who caught 6 passes for 162 yards. “We were ready to go to overtime, but didn’t want to if we didn’t have to.”

“As far as emotions, it was momentum,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher commented. “We made up our mind at halftime we were going to win this game and all credit to Kurt Warner and the big play, or it is a different ballgame.

“We did everything we could to give ourselves a chance to win,” added Fisher. “We went for two. We went for it on fourth down. We got within six inches of having an opportunity.”

The Titans had one last chance and McNair again came up big for Tennessee, scrambling for 12 yards before being brought down by the facemask by cornerback Dre Bly with 1:16 left. The penalty cost the Rams 15 more yards and pushed the ball to the St. Louis 45-yard line.

With 22 seconds left, McNair made another incredible play, scrambling loose from two Rams defenders on third and 5 and finding Dyson down the middle for a 16-yard gain that moved the ball to the Rams’ 10-yard line, setting the stage for the climactic final play.

“When he (Jones) got his hands on me I thought I’d break the tackle but he slid down to my foot like you’re supposed to and made a great play,” Dyson said. “I realized as soon as I stretched out and was going down that I didn’t get the point of the ball over the goal line.”

That was a huge relief for the Rams.

“When I saw that ball go in the air, I said ‘It’s a touchdown,’ ” Vermeil said.