WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
St. Louis was the third highest-scoring team in NFL history this season with 526 points, about 33 points a game. Kurt Warner (13), an unknown backup when camp started, threw 41 touchdown passes to become just the second quarterback in NFL history to have more than 40 in one season. (Dan Marino is the other).
Warner had all the weapons any QB would want -- outside speed in Isaac Bruce (80), Torry Holt (88) and Az-Zahir Hakim at wide receiver, plus journeyman Ricky Proehl (87), who caught the only touchdown in their 11-6 win over Tampa Bay in the NFC title game.
But the key to the Rams' offense is Marshall Faulk (28), who became just the second back to run for more than 1,000 yards and have 1,000 yards receiving in a season. He usually catches first and runs later; offensive coordinator Mike Martz' philosophy is to go for big plays early and make the other team come from behind.
That's hard against the Titans, who beat the Rams 24-21 in Nashville on Oct. 31 by forcing early turnovers and jumping ahead 21-0.
The Titans are one of the last teams to use the "46" defense popularized by the 1985 Chicago Bears. Coach Jeff Fisher played on that team and later was defensive coordinator in Philadelphia under Buddy Ryan, who perfected the setup.
One of the keys in the first game was the play of Jevon Kearse (90), Tennessee's left defensive end against Fred Miller (73), the Rams' right tackle. Kearse, along with the crowd noise, forced Miller into six false starts and two holding penalties. Kearse has done minimal damage in the last two playoff games because he's been double-teamed. But that's opened things up for the other defensive linemen -- Jason Fisk (97), Kenny Holmes (99), Josh Evans (91) and John Thornton (78).
Holmes, outstanding in the playoff win over Indianapolis, will be lined up against Orlando Pace (76), the Rams' All-Pro left tackle. Evans, who's had an exceptional postseason, will be lined up against another Pro Bowler, Adam Timmerman (62), who played in two Super Bowls with Green Bay.
The Titans' linebackers, Eddie Robinson (55), Barron Wortham (52) and Joe Bowden (58), are quick enough to pursue Faulk. Strong safety Blaine Bishop (23) and right cornerback Samari Rolle (21) are the keys to the secondary. Bishop is a strong tackler who often lines up at the line of scrimmage in the "46." Anthony Dorsett (33), son of former Cowboys' great Tony Dorsett, will replace the injured Marcus Robertson at free safety.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Tennessee's offensive philosophy is very different than St. Louis'. There's no disgrace in punting the ball, letting the defense pin the other team deep in its own territory and controlling the field position.
It's designed around the inside running of Eddie George (27) and the scrambling of quarterback Steve McNair (9). McNair has thrown for just 300 yards in three playoff games but had 91 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in the 33-14 AFC title game victory over Jacksonville. It will probably be the same again Sunday, especially with Yancey Thigpen (82), the most dangerous and most experienced receiver, a question mark with a hairline break in his foot. Even with Thigpen, many of McNair's passes during the playoffs have been dumpoffs to George and tight ends Frank Wycheck (89) and Jackie Harris (89).
The key to keeping the ball is the offensive line, led by Bruce Matthews (74) and tackles Brad Hopkins (72) and Jon Runyan (69). Matthews, who has played 264 regular-season games, most of any offensive lineman in NFL history, remains in top form at 38.
For George to be effective, they will have to move an overlooked St. Louis defense, which scored eight touchdowns this season, three by outside linebacker Mike Jones (52). It's led up front by Kevin Carter (93), Grant Wistrom (91) and D'Marco Farr (75). Carter led the league in sacks with 17 but is also an effective run-stopper. But the most effective Ram against the run has been middle linebacker London Fletcher (59), a 5-foot-10, 241-pounder who objected when he was listed at 6 feet in the Rams' media guide and got the listing adjusted to his correct height.
The veteran of the St. Louis secondary is left cornerback Todd Lyght (41), who never played on a winning team until this season after nine years in the league. Devin Bush (23) replaced Keith Lyle (35) at free safety over the last half of the season. Lyle, who had 23 interceptions between 1995-98, is healthy now and will play in the nickel package.
Both teams have weapons on returns. The Rams' Tony Horne (82) returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the regular season and another to open the second half of the 49-37 win over Minnesota in the divisional playoff. Hakim had an 84-yard punt return for a score.
The Titans' biggest threat is Derrick Mason (84), who returned a free kick 80 yards in the 33-14 win over Jacksonville last week and also had a 44-yard return after a safety against Buffalo that led to a touchdown. Safeties, in fact, are Tennessee's specialty -- they had four in the regular season and two more in the playoffs.
Tennessee's kicker is 37-year-old Al Del Greco (3), whose career field goal percentage is close to 84 percent, one of the highest in NFL history. Punter Craig Hentrich (15) is one of the team's field-position weapons.
Forty-year-old Mike Horan (2), the St. Louis punter, will be in his fourth Super Bowl. He was there with Denver three times in the '80s. Jeff Wilkins (14), the placekicker, has been bothered by a pulled hamstring but is expected to play.
COACHING AND INTANGIBLES
The Titans think destiny is on their side. Who wouldn't after playing in four stadiums in three different cities the past four years? They also survived a wild-card game with Buffalo on an improbable, game-winning lateral and kickoff return, and beat Jacksonville for the third time this season.
But the Rams, who hadn't had a winning season since 1989 and were 4-12 a year ago, think the same way. Warner, an Arena League and NFL Europe graduate, ended up as the league's MVP after starting training camp battling for the second-string job.
Both coaches have been here before.
St. Louis' Dick Vermeil was the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles 19 years ago when they lost 27-10 to the Raiders. Vermeil was criticized at the time for making the team too tense, but he's adapted since. He was out of the NFL for 14 years when he took the Rams' job three years ago.
Fisher was on injured reserve for the Chicago Bears when they won the Super Bowl in 1986. At 41, he's still one of the NFL's youngest coaches -- he was a teammate of Matthews at Southern California -- and he is credited with keeping the team together during its wanderings.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times