Rams put unbeaten record on line

Oct. 27, 2001 at 9:03 AM
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The St. Louis Rams put their unbeaten record on the line against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season, and Doug Flutie faces the team which spurned him in Week Seven of the NFL.

Last season, the New Orleans Saints split with the Rams during the regular season, dethroned them as NFC West champs, then knocked them out of the playoffs with a 31-28 victory in the wild card round.

The Rams (6-0), the NFL's lone remaining unbeaten team, can exact a measure of revenge with a win Sunday. But seven has not been a lucky number for the Rams, who were 6-0 each of the previous two years before suffering their first loss.

However, neither of those losses came at home, where quarterback Kurt Warner is 17-0 as a starter.

Aaron Brooks was the star quarterback in the playoff battle between the teams last December, passing for four touchdowns and leading the Saints to the first playoff win in franchise history.

Willie Jackson tied a playoff record with the three touchdown catches and finished with six receptions for 142 yards as the Saints built a 31-7 lead. Warner and the Rams staged a furious fourth-quarter rally, but lost a chance to win when Az-Zahir Hakim muffed a punt in the final minutes.

Sunday, the Rams again will be without reigning Most Valuable Player Marshall Faulk. But the Saints will have to contend with Trung Canidate, who in his first NFL start rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns last week in a 34-14 rout of the New York Jets.

The Saints (3-2) are coming off a 20-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Flutie probably circled October 28 on his calendar when he signed with the San Diego Chargers. That is the day he gets a crack at the Buffalo Bills, the team that jettisoned him in favor of Rob Johnson.

But Flutie, one of four former Bills playing for the Chargers, provided no fodder for the media this week, opting not to take shots at his former team.

However, Bills owner Ralph Wilson did not hide his bitterness toward John Butler, who was fired by Wilson as general manager after refusing to negotiate a new contract and quickly took a similar post with the Chargers.

"I'd rather beat the Chargers this year than win the Super Bowl," Wilson told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "Last year, I chartered on two different occasions a plane for Butler to go scouting. It was easier that way to get him there and get back. I didn't know he was scouting for the Chargers."

Butler has made an immediate impact in San Diego, making the personnel moves that have helped the Chargers transform a 1-15 team to one that is 4-2 -- one-half game behind first-place Oakland in the AFC West.

After new Bills general manager Tom Donahoe and coach Gregg Williams decided to keep Johnson and release Flutie, Butler pounced on Flutie to run his team. Butler also lured defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who was Bruce Smith's successor in Buffalo, and signed linebackers Sam Rogers and John Holecek after they were released by the Bills.

While the Chargers are flourishing, Buffalo finally won its first game last Thursday after starting the year with four losses.

Without Flutie looking over his shoulder, Johnson is struggling in Buffalo's new West Coast offense. He has just three touchdowns and five interceptions, but was sharp in Buffalo's 13-10 win over Jacksonville, completing 23-of-30 for 238 yards and a touchdown.

Flutie clearly is enjoying more success than Johnson, passing for 1,314 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions.

Jon Gruden faces the Philadelphia Eagles for the first time since leaving in 1998 to become the coach of the Oakland Raiders.

Gruden and Eagles coach Andy Reid are familiar with each other from their years with the Green Bay Packers. Gruden was the receivers coach from 1992-94 before becoming Eagles offensive coordinator from 1995-97. Reid spent 1992-98 on the coaching staff in Green Bay before taking the Eagles job in January 1999.

Gruden and Reid both have done extremely well as coaches. Last season, Gruden led the Raiders within one win of the Super Bowl while Reid and the Eagles reached the NFC divisional playoffs.

This season, Gruden's Raiders (4-1) are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the best record in the AFC. Reid's Eagles lead the NFC East at 3-2.

Running back Lamar Smith is returning to the city where his NFL career started and was scarred by a car crash that left a teammate partially paralyzed when the Miami Dolphins (3-2) visit the Seattle Seahawks (3-2).

It will be Smith's first game in Seattle since he left the Seahawks after the 1997 season. He admitted he had been drinking, pleaded guilty to vehicular assault and was sentenced to four months in jail.

Smith played against Seattle last year in Miami, rushing for 145 yards to spark a 23-0 victory.

Both Super Bowl teams from last season -- the defending champion Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants -- have each lost two in a row and are 3-3.

The Ravens may be forced to start veteran Randall Cunningham at quarterback Sunday when they host the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-3). Regular starter Elvis Grbac is nursing a chest injury and is listed as questionable. Cunningham worked with the first team in practice through the week.

After starting the season with a 3-1 record, the Ravens surprisingly yielded a total of 55 points in losses at Green Bay and Cleveland.

The Giants were able to beat the Washington Redskins (1-5) with a banged-up backfield earlier this month and will look to do the same Sunday.

Damon Washington rushed for 90 yards in relief of Ron Dayne and cornerback Jason Sehorn sealed the game with a 34-yard interception return for a score as the Giants beat the Redskins, 23-9, on October 7.

Since beating the Redskins, the Giants suffered a 15-14 loss at St. Louis and a 10-9 defeat to Philadelphia. The Giants squandered a 9-0 lead in the Monday loss to the Eagles.

The Chicago Bears (4-1) and San Francisco 49ers (4-1) enter Sunday's game at Soldier Field as two of the NFC's biggest surprises.

The Bears have won four in a row for the first time since 1995, the last time they made the playoffs. This is their best start since 1991. The 49ers are 4-1 for the first time since they won six of their first seven contests in 1998.

The defense has been the primary reason for Chicago's success. The Bears have allowed the fewest points in the NFL (43) and feature the league's top rushing defense.

If recent history is any indicator, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-3) will beat the Minnesota Vikings (3-3) when the teams meet Sunday. Last month, the Vikings posted a 20-16 victory over Tampa Bay at the Metrodome. The NFC Central Division rivals have split the season series each of the last eight years.

Two Michigan quarterbacks duel Sunday when the Denver Broncos (3-3) host the New England Patriots (3-3). Tom Brady was the backup to Brian Griese when Michigan won the national championship in 1997. Now, Brady is making a name for himself, leading the Patriots to three wins in four games since they lost starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe to a chest injury.

Griese, playing with a recurring shoulder problem, has struggled the last two games, throwing five interceptions

Last season, the Patriots snapped an 11-game losing streak in Denver and won for the first time in the Mile High state since 1968 with a 28-19 victory. Five weeks after undergoing right knee surgery, running back Terrell Davis returned to practice for the Broncos. He is listed as questionable for Sunday.

The Dallas Cowboys (1-4) will give second-year quarterback Clint Stoerner his first NFL start Sunday when they meet the Arizona Cardinals (2-3). Stoerner will be the third quarterback to start for the Cowboys this season, and Ryan Leaf will serve as the backup. Regular starter Anthony Wright has been bothered by a sprained right knee and may have to undergo surgery.

The Detroit Lions (0-5), the NFL's lone remaining winless team, host the Cincinnati Bengals (3-3), and the New York Jets (3-3) visit the Carolina Panthers (1-5).

One of two streaks will be broken Monday when the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1) host the Tennessee Titans (2-3) in an AFC Central clash. The Steelers have won eight straight home Monday night games, but the Titans have defeated Pittsburgh seven times in a row.

The Steelers enter this contest with plenty of momentum on their side, reeling off four straight wins since a season-opening loss at Jacksonville. Pittsburgh has a surprising one-half game lead over idle Cleveland (4-2) in the division. Pittsburgh, which ranks second in the NFL in total defense, has allowed 58 points, the second fewest in the league.

Green Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta (3-3) have a bye week.

The Indianapolis Colts (3-3) snapped a three-game losing streak with a 35-28 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs (1-6) on Thursday night.

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