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UPSTARTS VIE IN CLASH OF TITANS, RAMS

A wacky, who'd-a-thunk-it NFL season reaches a climax today when one Cinderella team meets another in Super Bowl XXXIV.

The St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans were considered long shots to win the NFL championship when the pro football season began.

Neither had a winning record last year. Neither had been to the playoffs the previous five years.

Yet these two unusual suspects cap a week of hoopla and hype when they kickoff the game at 6:25 tonight in the Georgia Dome.

"Some people look at us like we're crashing the party," said Titans fullback Lorenzo Neal. "They see it's the Titans and the Rams and start asking, 'Where are the 49ers? Where are the Broncos?'

"I think it's good for the NFL to have some new blood in here," Neal said. "It proves that you don't have to come from the big cities and have the big names to be a successful team."

Unfortunately for the long-suffering fans of the Rams and Titans, Super Bowl week hardly has been a hot time.

Sightseeing has been hindered by unseasonably cold weather -- temperatures have hovered in the 20s and 30s. And Saturday, Atlanta was struck by freezing rain that slowed traffic on major highways. About half the Delta Airlines flights out of Atlanta were canceled Friday, but the airport remained open all day Saturday.

Fortunately, fans who paid for a $325 ticket will be indoors tonight, where they will watch one fairy tale season reach a happy ending.

No team ever has gone from being as bad as the Rams were last season (4-12) to reaching the Super Bowl the next.

"This team has all the makings of a TV movie," said Rams defensive end Kevin Carter. "There are a lot of good stories, a lot of good people. We don't have guys who beat their wives or sell drugs. It's nice to see good guys finish first."

The Rams' good guys include quarterback Kurt Warner, who was stocking shelves in an Iowa grocery store for $5.50 an hour five years ago. He bounced from indoor football to European football to the NFL and won the league MVP award this year.

Then there's Rams coach Dick Vermeil, 63, who retired after the 1982 season because he was burned out. He has forsaken his ultra-intense, micromanaging ways and learned to stop and smell the roses. He even broke down and cried after a handful of Rams wins this year.

Carter is a neat story, too. He was too skinny to play football as a high school freshman, so he played saxophone in the band. Now he's 6-foot-5, 285 pounds and is the NFL's leading quarterback sacker.

Tennessee, meanwhile, might be a team of destiny.

The Titans' season looked dead with 16 seconds left in their playoff game against the Buffalo Bills. Then they pulled off the Music City Miracle, a 75-yard lateral-and-run kickoff return for a touchdown that propelled them to Atlanta.

"I think we've made our own destiny," said Titans defensive end Josh Evans. "We beat the teams people said we couldn't beat."

The Titans have one more to go. St. Louis is a seven-point favorite.

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