Warner survives shakiest game of brief NFL career

Kurt Warner looked like an Arena League quarterback and NFL wannabe again — until the crucial drive of the NFC championship game.

The NFL's MVP, who threw 41 touchdown passes in the regular season and added five more in the St. Louis Rams' playoff victory over Minnesota last week, survived the shakiest game of his brief NFL career in Sunday's 11-6 victory over Tampa Bay.

"I thought we did a fine job, I just thought we didn't finish drives,'' Warner said. "We had chances to score some more points but we just never finished it.''

The Buccaneers' zone kept Warner from airing out the ball, had a committee waiting for Marshall Faulk whenever he touched the ball and bottled up Isaac Bruce, too.

"We always felt like we had the capability to shut this offense down,'' Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "It wasn't a matter of this run-and-gun fun and Warner Brothers ... they talk about.''

That left lesser lights such as Ricky Proehl and Torry Holt to carry the load one first down at a time for the league's No. 1 offense.

"The way they play defense, it's hard to get the big play on them,'' Warner said. "They change things up and they've got a great scheme, so you've got to work it down the field.''

Until Proehl outfought Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly for the winning 30-yard touchdown pass with 4:44 to go, the Rams were in danger of going without a touchdown for the first time since Week 10 last year.

It was the first touchdown catch of the season for Proehl, who has perhaps the surest hands among the Rams' wideouts but is mainly a third-down possession receiver. He had 33 catches in the regular season, but led Rams receivers in yardage and had six receptions for 100 yards.

Holt, the Rams' first-round pick, had seven catches for 68 yards despite physical problems during the game. He left with bruised ribs in the first quarter, and was spitting up blood in the locker room during the third quarter with a bruised right shoulder.

Faulk, who set the NFL record with 2,429 total yards this season, was held to 44 yards on 17 carries and three catches for 5 yards.

"They always make it tough on me,'' Faulk said. "They're smart and they have a great defensive coordinator.''

Bruce had three catches for 22 yards.

"You couldn't go deep against them,'' Bruce said. "It was totally impossible.''

Offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who inherits Dick Vermeil's head coaching job in 2002, at times appeared flummoxed by the Bucs' defense. The Rams wasted three timeouts because Warner couldn't get the snap off in time.

"I know the plays were kind of coming in a little bit late,'' offensive tackle Fred Miller said. "That's really between the coaches and Kurt.

"All I try to do is block them after they call them.''

While they were eventually able to get that problem out of the way, the offense remained out of sync most of the day. Warner frequently threw behind receivers and some balls floated to their intended target. He finished 26-for-43 for 258 yards with three interceptions.

The result was the Rams' lowest scoring total, by far, of the season, in the the biggest game for the franchise since moving to the Midwest in 1995.

The previous low was 21 points in a three-point loss in Week 7 at Tennessee, the Rams' first setback of the season.

Now, the Rams get a rematch with those Titans. It will be the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance since the 1979 season.