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RAMS ESCAPE WITH WIN OVER BUCS

Besides the euphoria, the smiles, the congratulations and the talk of dreams coming true, there was one underlying feeling Sunday in the St. Louis Rams' locker room: relief.

The Rams won the NFC Championship Game over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it wasn't anything like the way they expected it.

The Rams watched their 34-points-per-game offense get wrapped in a straitjacket by the Tampa Bay defense.

The Buccaneers held the Rams to one measly big play.

It was one big play too many.

Kurt Warner's 30-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with 4:44 left sent the Rams to an 11-6 victory and a berth in Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta next Sunday.

The Rams will face Tennessee for the NFL title thanks largely to the fact their defense is superb and Tampa Bay's offense is about as explosive as toothpaste.

They are not going, incredibly, because any one of their unstoppable offensive trio -- Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce -- played a good game.

"I feel very fortunate to win this game," Rams coach Dick Vermeil said. "We got trapped into playing their kind of game due to our turnovers and at times bad field position. You don't see the slanting, stunting scheme that they use with the quick people they have very often. It bothered us."

Warner, who had thrown for 46 TDs and just 14 interceptions this year, was picked off three times by the Bucs.

Faulk, who set an NFL record by producing 151 yards a game, was limited to 49 total yards. Bruce was held to just three catches for 22 yards.

"It seemed like everything we did, they knew what to expect," said Warner. "They did a great job. I give them a lot of credit. But we were able to make one more play, the play that made the difference."

St. Louis' defense got a pivotal turnover with 8:01 left. Clinging to a 6-5 lead and facing third-and-11 from the 50, the Bucs opted to let rookie quarterback Shaun King throw. His pass for Warrick Dunn in the flat was well overthrown and picked off by Rams cornerback Dre Bly.

That set up Warner at the Tampa 47. Six plays later, Warner stepped under center on a third-and-4 play from the Bucs' 30 and noticed Bucs safety Damien Robinson creeping up to blitz.

"Kurt and I talked prior to the play, and Kurt said if the safety comes, we're running the fade route," said Proehl. "We had worked on it all week. Their corners were squatting (close to the line of scrimmage), expecting us to run a slant. The safety blitzed. I went straight down the sideline. The ball was underthrown a bit so I tried to shield him off with my body."

Proehl made a nice catch over cornerback Brian Kelly and the Rams had regained the lead.

King, bidding to become the first rookie quarterback ever to lead a team to the Super Bowl, got the Bucs into scoring position on the ensuing series.

He marched them to the Rams' 22 with 1:25 left but then took a 13-yard sack from Rams end Grant Wistrom. King hit Bert Emmanuel on a 13-yard pass to set up an apparent third-and-10 from the 22. But replay officials in the booth ordered the officials on the field to review the play.

Although replays seemed to show Emmanuel clearly had control of the ball, the nose of the pigskin touched the turf as Emmanuel went down. It was ruled incomplete on review.

Said referee Bill Carollo: "It was apparent that the player, as he was catching the ball, he used the ground, and the top of the ball hit the ground. By rule, you cannot use the ground, or have assistance from the ground to make a catch."

King's next pass was incomplete, and the crowd of 66,496 at the Trans World Dome began celebrating St. Louis' first trip to the Super Bowl in 33 years of NFL football.

King finished 13 of 29 for 163 yards.

Warner, whose Cinderella season almost turned into a pumpkin, was 26 of 43 for 258 yards.

"I thought we did a fine job," Warner said. "We just didn't finish drives. We had chances to score. But with the way they play defense, you've got to work it down the field patiently."

Proehl caught six passes for 100 yards and the TD was his first of the season.

"It's a great feeling," he said. "I've played for 10 years and the best I've ever been until this year is 8-8. This is what I've always dreamed about."

The dream season, thus, goes on for Rams fans. The Rams lost 102 games in the '90s, second only to lowly Cincinnati. They had endured nine straight losing seasons until this year.

Now they are in the Super Bowl.

"It's a wonderful feeling," Vermeil said.

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