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SUPER BOWL FINALLY LIVES UP TO NAME WITH SUPER FINISH

Thirty-two years ago, when they officially named it the Super Bowl, what they had in mind, and seldom got, was the final two minutes of the St. Louis Rams' stomach-churning 23-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans.

How could you beat Sunday's ending?

Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair, the soul of inconsistency most of the night, gunning an accurate pass to Kevin Dyson inside the Rams' 5-yard line. Dyson then twisting desperately to put the ball across the goal line for the touchdown which would have put his team within an extra point of overtime.

And Rams linebacker Mike Jones diving to tackle Dyson and getting a firm enough hold on him to prevent his thrusting the ball across that goal line. Imagine what the Bills would have given to have had Jones on their kickoff coverage team three weeks ago in Nashville.

"This is what Super Bowls are made of," said Marshall Faulk, St. Louis' star running back. "You know I've seen some games where teams get blown out and give up."

It was a night of improbable stories. The Rams, one of the shoddiest teams in football for the last decade, rose from the ashes of a 4-12 record in 1998 to reach the climax of a marvelous comeback story in which they were crowned Super Bowl champions.

Just when it appeared that storybook ending was about to slip away from them, their quarterback, Kurt Warner, took his place alongside Jack and the Beanstalk and Hans Brinker. All night the press box public address system announced all the passing records Warner had exceeded or was approaching. It didn't mean a lot. The first 11 passes Warner threw after reaching the red zone, the payoff area from the 20-yard line to the enemy goal line, fell incomplete.

Warner accumulated 277 passing yards by halftime. Only Washington's Doug Williams, with 306 in Super Bowl XXII, exceeded that. The difference was that Williams' Redskins led Denver, 35-10, at intermission. Warner's Rams had a tenuous 9-0 lead.

More significantly, Tennessee had battled back from a 16-0 deficit to tie, 16-16, with just over two minutes to play. From there it became a war of nerves.

With 2:05 left, Warner was confronted by a new situation for him. All season long he had put up phenomenal numbers, including 41 touchdown passes, third-highest all time. But the Rams played only three winning teams all season and one of them was Tennessee, which beat them.

It took just seconds for Warner to answer whether he was up to the challenge. Isaac Bruce, his premier receiver, was sent on a streak pattern down the right sideline. Warner, with the dangerous Jevon Kearse about to knock him on his back, launched a slightly imperfect pass to Bruce at the Titans' 38-yard line.

The ball hung a little, Bruce made an adjustment and the corner back covering him, Denard Walker, didn't. "Denard lost the ball and Bruce got away from him," said Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher. "Warner and Bruce made a great play."

It wasn't over even though there was only 1:54 to play. Tennessee is the grittiest team in the NFL. The Titans are flawed. McNair is an unpolished quarterback who sometimes misses reads and sometimes doesn't throw the ball as soon as he should. But if you let the Titans hang around, chances are they'll find a way to beat you.

The Bills could have warned the Rams about that.

What happened was that the Titans unleashed their popgun offense. McNair passed for 9 and 7 yards, then ran for 12 with another 15 tacked on when Rams defensive back Dre' Bly grabbed his facemask. Suddenly, with 1:05 left, Tennessee was in Rams' territory.

Now 65 seconds is plenty of time to score when your passer is as skilled as Warner. But McNair, for all the strength in his arm, is like a fastball pitcher who can't find the plate. He had tight end Frank Wycheck open in the end zone on a two-point conversion pass when Wycheck read the defense and made an adjusted move. McNair didn't read the defense and threw the ball behind Wycheck.

Ordinarily, when the Titans are 45 yards away from the enemy goal, they put the ball in the hands of monster running back Eddie George. George was at his stallion best this night, moving the pile time after time for important first downs.

But George is a pound-away runner, 3 or 4 yards a shot. There wasn't time for that. McNair had to pass, and do it better than he had all game. It wasn't a thing of beauty, but he got it done. With 22 seconds left he zinged a pass to Dyson for 16 yards to the Rams' 10 and Tennessee used its last timeout with only six seconds remaining.

"We knew we needed to make one more play," said Kevin Carter, St. Louis' All-Pro defensive end. The expectation was that someone like Carter or his star linemate Grant Wistrom or buzz saw middle linebacker London Fletcher would be the one most likely to make the tackle. Instead it was Jones, one of the more obscure Ram starters. His obscurity should have ended with that play.

"I didn't see the tackle," Carter said. "but I knew from all the jumping up and down that it stopped them from scoring, that we won the game."

There's never been a Super Bowl ending like it.

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