ST. LOUIS — It had all the makings of a shootout, but when the second half began, St. Louis was the only team that kept firing.
The Rams dominated Minnesota in every facet in a 48-17 win Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome. St. Louis moved to 9-3 and strengthened its hold on first place in the NFC West Division. The Rams have won four straight and eight of their past nine. The Vikings dropped to 7-5 and hold a one-game lead on Green Bay in the NFC North.
Coach Mike Martz said he couldn’t have been happier with the dominant performance.
“We felt like we needed to play our best game this year, which I felt like we did,” Martz said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this group.”
The Vikings had 465 yards of total offense to St. Louis’ 396, but the opportunistic Rams’ defense made the difference. St. Louis forced three turnovers and got eight sacks.
Entering the second half with a slim 20-17 lead, the Rams wasted no time in putting an end to Minnesota’s upset hopes.
The Vikings drove to the St. Louis 25 before the Rams’ defense stymied the drive. Instead of kicking a tying field goal, Minnesota attempted a fake field goal. Holder Gus Frerotte took the snap and the offensive line pulled left, opening up the right side, but when Frerotte tried to flip the ball to Charles Stackhouse, Stackhouse was nowhere near the ball.
The pass fell incomplete, the St. Louis offense took over and it immediately moved down the field.
Minnesota coach Mike Tice said he didn’t think a field goal would have helped much at that point.
“I don’t think we can beat this team kicking field goals,” Tice said. “I think you need to score touchdowns against this offense.”
After a pair of Marc Bulger completions, Martz pulled a new play from his ever-growing bag of tricks.
Two weeks ago, tailback Marshall Faulk came to Martz with a play that involved a handoff to Faulk, then a handoff to Torry Holt on an end-around. After getting the ball, Holt was supposed to throw to wide receiver Dane Looker who would almost certainly be open downfield.
Martz liked the idea and put the play in the playbook, with one minor adjustment. Isaac Bruce replaced Holt as the passer. With 5:26 left in the third quarter, Martz called the play and it went as Faulk envisioned.
Bulger handed to Faulk who handed to Bruce. As Bruce rolled to his right, he launched a pass to a wide-open Looker who caught it in stride and took it to the Minnesota 5 for a 41-yard gain. Faulk capped the drive one play later with a 5-yard touchdown run. Jeff Wilkins’ extra point made it 27-17.
Faulk said Martz’s willingness to run the play shows the kind of coach he is.
“It’s just a credit to him as a coach when a player comes to him and says ‘Hey, take a look at this here,” Faulk said. “Then we work on it a couple of days, put it in and we call it, and it works. You feel good about that.”
With the momentum, the Rams put the Vikings away. On Minnesota’s ensuing possession, linebacker Tommy Polley tipped a Daunte Culpepper pass and defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson intercepted it and returned it to the Minnesota 12.
On the next play, Bulger took off through a hole on the right side and scored. Wilkins’ extra point increased the St. Louis lead to 34-17 and effectively finished the Vikings.
The fun continued for the Rams on Minnesota’s next possession. After the Vikings drove to the St. Louis 5, defensive end Leonard Little quickly put an end to the Minnesota scoring threat. Little darted around tackle Mike Rosenthal, hit Culpepper and forced a fumble. Free safety Aeneas Williams recovered it at the 10 and took it 90 yards for a touchdown. Another Wilkins extra point made it 41-17 with 12:06 to play.
Little, who returned after missing four weeks with a torn left pectoral muscle, finished with four sacks and two forced fumbles.
Martz said his return is important for his team, especially with the playoffs fast approaching.
“He is so dominant, and I think this game is a terrific statement about what type of player he is,” Martz said. “I think he’s the best defensive player in the league.”
Little offered little comfort to opposing quarterbacks after the game, saying he isn’t back to full health yet.
“I am not satisfied even with my play today,” Little said. “I think I can get a whole lot better than I played today.”
The Rams ended the scoring with a five-play, 50-yard drive. Faulk was a one-man show on that drive, gaining 52 yards, including a spinning dash off left tackle for a 29-yard gain. Faulk’s 7-yard touchdown was his third.
With the score, Faulk passed Walter Payton and Jim Brown for fifth on the career touchdown list with 127. Faulk finished the game with 108 yards on 17 carries.
St. Louis’ started the game the way it played in the second half. Linebacker Jamie Duncan blocked an Eddie Johnson punt on the game’s opening possession. Kevin Garrett recovered for the Rams and returned it to Minnesota’s 18. Faulk took the handoff on the Rams’ first play from scrimmage and darted to the left, where fullback Joey Goodspeed and Holt created a huge hole, for his first touchdown.
The Rams got the ball back with 10:18 left in the first quarter and Wilkins eventually booted a 28-yard field goal to make it 10-0.
It appeared that the rout was on, but Minnesota answered.
Culpepper hit receiver Randy Moss for a 15-yard touchdown. Aaron Elling’s extra point made it 10-7.
The Rams responded with Bulger’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Bruce. The extra point extended the lead to 17-7. Bulger had another typical performance, finishing with 222 yards on 15-of-20 passing with a touchdown pass and touchdown run.
Holt had his eighth 100-yard receiving day of the season, finishing with 102 yards on eight catches.
With 51 seconds left in the first half, Moe Williams scored from a yard out to tie it at 17. Wilkins kicked a 51-yard field goal as the half expired to give St. Louis a 20-17 lead.
The Rams and Philadelphia are tied for the best record in the NFC. If the playoffs began next week, St. Louis would be the second seed, because the Eagles hold the tiebreaker (best record in the NFC).
Considering the way the Rams play at home, they are making no bones about their desire for home-field advantage.
“When we get on our home turf, that crowd really makes a huge difference,” Williams said. “Now, it is time as a team to hit the accelerator and that’s what we wanted to do starting today.”