Every generation has its Ice Bowl. Dallas at Green Bay in ’67. San Diego at Cincinnati in ’81. Fortunately for all concerned, they don’t happen that often, or at least didn’t until Saturday, when the second round of the NFL playoffs served up two on the same day.
While the New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans and 68,000 Gillette Stadium Eskimos braved frostbite and hypothermia for the sake of CBS prime-time ratings, St. Louis Ram Coach Mike Martz froze in the final minute of regulation and left his players out in the cold without so much as a spark of confidence or courage with victory only 15 yards away.
Martz’s team was hot. The Rams had just scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to pull to within three points of Carolina. They recovered the onside kick. Quarterback Marc Bulger had completed his last three throws, for gains of 20, 13 and six yards, helping set up St. Louis with a first down on the Panther 15 with one timeout and 39 seconds left.
The Rams had enough time for three, maybe four shots into the end zone.
Martz didn’t take one.
The Millennium Rams, “The Greatest Show On Turf,” the team of “Mad Man Martz” pulled up, pulled back, told Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce to sit down, we’re running out the clock and bringing on the field-goal unit and playing for overtime.
Vince Lombardi didn’t win the first Ice Bowl, didn’t become an instant NFL playoff legend, by playing it safe and kicking the field goal.
But that’s what Martz did.
With 39 seconds to play with, with only 15 yards to negotiate, with the Rams’ third NFC final in five years there for the taking, Martz picked a very strange time to turn into Chuck Knox.
Martz got his field goal and got his overtime and got what he deserved.
On the first play of the second overtime, Carolina showed some guts and had Jake Delhomme throw down the middle on third and 14 from the Panther 31. This was Delhomme, the least credentialed quarterback left in the tournament, stepping up the way Kurt Warner used to -- or the way Bulger had been Saturday, before his coach two-footed the brakes.
It was a play that looked as if it were lifted from the Ram playbook. Mike Martz’s playbook. It went to Steve Smith and it went for 69 yards, Smith going in untouched, so untouched that he glanced over his shoulder in disbelief around the St. Louis 25-yard line, running the Rams out of the playoffs with a 29-23 Panther victory.
Afterward, Martz told reporters he didn’t regret his decision to go conservative in the clutch. He said he was “very sure” about his decision. He said he would have “hated to have the ball tipped or intercepted” on a pass into the end zone.
In other words, Martz didn’t have faith in Bulger, who had already thrown two interceptions in his first postseason start, but was also on his way to passing for 332 yards in his first postseason start.
And what had young Bulger done in his first 22 regular-season starts?
Won 18 of them, that’s all.
In other words, Martz preferred putting his trust, and his season, in the hands of a Ram defense that already had yielded more than 200 rushing yards and would end the day barely holding Delhomme and the Panthers under 500 yards overall.
Give Martz this much: He almost got away with it. Carolina won the coin flip, kicked a 40-yard field goal, had the field goal nullified by a delay-of-game penalty, moved back five yards and then missed a 45-yard field-goal attempt.
Ball to the Rams, who got another long completion from Bulger to Bruce before the drive fizzled and Jeff Wilkins was brought on for a 53-yard field-goal attempt.
Wilkins kicked it 52 1/2 yards.
The teams traded possessions again, with Bulger throwing his third interception just before the end of the first overtime, setting up Delhomme for the game-winner.
So Martz got what he wanted: two chances to win in overtime.
But neither drive took the Rams even close to where they left it at the end of regulation, the Carolina 15-yard line.
The playoffs aren’t for the faint of heart, so it’s just as well Martz bowed out when he did.
They’re also not for the walking wounded, for battered league co-MVPs such as Tennessee quarter Steve McNair, who should have been spending Saturday inside a training-room whirlpool, not the largest ice box in New England.
How cold was it in Foxboro for the Patriots’ 17-14 victory over the Titans?
At halftime, the thermometer shivered at 3 degrees above zero, with a wind-chill factor of 12 degrees below.
Patriot quarterback Tom Brady moved into some heady company with his victorious Arctic expedition. The last time a Boston sports hero confronted conditions like this, Ted Williams was being wheeled into a cryogenics lab.
It was so cold you couldn’t tell what exactly was making McNair wince -- his aching ankle, his aching calf, his aching (fill in the body part of your choice) or simply the weather?
Still, McNair hobbled on gamely until the very end, until his last downfield pass found the hands of Drew Bennett, only to have Bennett’s freezing fingers finally fail him.
That’s the spirit that drives the NFL playoffs. Except in St. Louis, where that spirit abandoned the home team’s coach at the worst possible moment.