St. Louis 45, Green Bay 17

Jan. 20, 2002 at 10:49 PM
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ST. LOUIS, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Aneas Williams and Tommy Polley combined to return three of six St. Louis interceptions for touchdowns Sunday, highlighting a spotlight-stealing defensive effort that carried the Rams into the NFC Championship game with a 45-17 blasting of the Green Bay Packers.

With the Rams owning the No. 1 offense in the NFL, the Packers hoped to pull off a divisional-round upset by slowing down the passing threat of Kurt Warner and the running prowess of Marshall Faulk.

The Packers did a reasonable job at that thanks to a surprise scheme in which they employed seven defensive backs, but it was the St. Louis defense that turned the game into a nightmare for Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre. Not only were three of his interceptions returned for scores, another was brought back to the four-yard line, setting up an easy touchdown.

"In all of my years of coaching, I don't know if I've ever seen a defensive performance like that," Rams coach Mike Martz said.

St. Louis will try to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three years next Sunday when it hosts the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title contest.

The 45 points surrendered by the Packers were the most they had ever given up in a playoff game and a majority of them came from Green Bay mistakes. The Packers turned the ball over a total of eight times, one short of the all-time NFL playoff record.

Favre's six interceptions tied a postseason record shared by three players, the most recent being Hall of Famer Norm Brocklin for Los Angeles in the 1955 NFL championship game against Cleveland.

"Not one of my better days," Favre admitted. "That was the most tipped balls that I've ever had. This one hurts, but I will be back."

"He's had a great year and today wasn't one of his best days. He would be the first to admit that," Packers coach Mike Sherman said of his quarterback. "We have received a lot of benefits of his good days and obviously, today wasn't one of his best ones."

After holding the high-powered St. Louis without a first down on the Rams' first possession, Green Bay took over for the second time in the game at its own 22. But on second down, Favre and receiver Bill Schroeder had mixed signals and that proved costly.

Schroeder ran past Williams and was wide open down the sideline for what could have been a touchdown. But instead of throwing deep, Favre threw the ball right to Williams, who caught it at the 29 and returned the interception untouched for a touchdown.

The mistakes then began to come in waves for the Packers.

An interception by safety Kim Herring set up a four-yard scoring pass from Warner to fullback James Hodgins, helping give St. Louis a 24-10 halftime lead. Early in the second half, Williams stripped Green Bay receiver Antonio Freeman for a fumble and that quickly led to a seven-yard touchdown run by Faulk.

Less than two minutes later, Polley picked off a Favre pass tipped by defensive end Grant Wistrom and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown that made it 38-10. And Williams made it 45-10 in the fourth quarter when he intercepted a pass that glanced off the hands of Green Bay running back Ahman Green and brought it back 32 yards for a score.

Williams played just two playoff games in 10 years with the Arizona Cardinals before he was acquired by the Rams last April as perhaps the most important move in their defensive transformation under coordinator Lovie Smith.

On Sunday, Williams became the first player to return two interceptions for touchdowns in a postseason game.

The only St. Louis touchdown that did not come as a direct result of a turnover was the one that put the Rams in front for good at 14-7. Warner drove the Rams 66 yards in six plays for that score, which came on a four-yard throw to Torry Holt on the first play of the second quarter.

Green Bay could manage just 10 points while the game was still on the line, coming on a 22-yard pass from Favre to Freeman that tied it at 7-7 and on a 38-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell with 4:18 to play in the first half. Favre also hit Freeman with an eight-yard touchdown pass with 5:46 to go.

Favre went 26 of 44 for 281 yards while Green ran 94 yards on 16 carries.

Warner, who suffered through a case of stomach flu during the week prior to the game as well as bruised vocal chords which forced him to go two days without talking, completed 18 of 30 passes for 216 yards. Faulk picked up 82 yards on 16 carries.

"We never got our offense going, but we never had to get it going," said Warner. "The defense dominated from the start. Once that happened, we knew we didn't have to force things downfield."

"All of the focus was on our defense," said Williams. "But that was all right because we can sneak in there and steal things and be gone before they know it."

"We've got some guys on defense that don't really get the notoriety," Faulk said. "They don't get recognized for the things they did (during the season), but when you perform on the big stage like they did today, it will come."

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