Rams find way to win

Perception is a funny thing. The Raiders entered Sunday's game against the Rams as the NFL's only undefeated team and riding the wave of the league's top-ranked offense. St. Louis, on the other hand, lost its first five games and was down to its third-string quarterback. A mismatch on paper and ultimately on the field, but not the way most expected.

 

 

                       Getting a huge day from running back Marshall Faulk and a gritty performance from Marc Bulger, the Rams had their way with the Raiders, who seemingly couldn't get out of their own way in losing to St. Louis, 28-13, in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicated.

            Faulk rushed for a season-high 158 yards while Bulger, making his first NFL start only because of injuries to Kurt Warner and Jaime Martin, passed for three touchdowns and scored a fourth on a quarterback sneak.

            It was more than Oakland's defense could handle under normal circumstances, let alone when its own offense was struggling. Averaging more than 40 points a game, the Raiders could only manage a pair of field goals for the first 52 minutes against St. Louis before Terry Kirby scored on a short touchdown pass from Rich Gannon.

            That was a deadly combination for Oakland, which added to its woes with a slew of penalties and three turnovers.

            ''I think it was obvious and apparent today that we didn't play our best football,'' said Raiders head coach Bill Callahan, who suffered his first loss as an NFL head coach. ''We felt coming in here that we had to answer their surge of energy. We felt that they were a team that was desperate, that was on the ropes.''

            St. Louis, Super Bowl champions only two years ago, had not caught many breaks during its first five games. Injuries and a plethora of mistakes led to an 0-5 start for the Rams, which were on the verge of matching their worst start in franchise history.

            Oakland, on the other hand, could seemingly do no wrong through the first four games on its schedule and was the talk of the NFL for its sizzling start.

            Yet when the teams crossed paths under the roof of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, their fortunes took on distinctly different looks.

            It was the Rams who made the big plays, whether it was Bulger, wide-eyed and inexperienced, heaving a 50-yard completion down field to key St. Louis' first scoring drive, or whether it was Faulk, kicking Anthony Dorsett to the curb five yards in the backfield then reversing his direction and sprinting 32 yards down to set up the Rams' final score.

            The Raiders? They had a 53-yard pass from Gannon to Jerry Rice to open the game but did little after that. Whenever they did get something going, they inevitably shot themselves in the foot with silly penalties, dropped passes and a general lackluster performance that hadn't been seen from an Oakland team in some time.

            ''We didn't execute and we didn't play very well,'' said Raiders defensive tackle Sam Adams. ''They gave us a thorough butt-whipping.''

            Bulger certainly didn't look like a third-string quarterback on St. Louis' opening drive. Making his first appearance in an NFL regular-season game, the second-year quarterback looked smooth and poised as he marched his offense through Oakland's defense. Backed up on their own three-yard line after the Raiders' failed to convert on a fourth-and-one run, the Rams eased Bulger into the game by calling four straight running plays for Faulk to begin the drive before opening up and going to the air.

            Bulger used a pump-fake to freeze Raiders cornerback Phillip Buchanon, giving him just enough time to complete a 17-yard pass to Isaac Bruce. On the next play Bulger heaved the ball downfield and connected with Tory Holt on a 50-yard gain. Three plays later Bulger found Bruce again, this time on a sprint rollout from seven yards out for a touchdown.

            The Raiders own offense looked more like the Cincinnati Bengals at times. Oakland had rolled up mountainous numbers and piled up points by the bushel in winning its first four games but didn't have much to offer against the Rams.

            In the first half alone the Raiders were stopped three yards shy of the end zone on a fourth-down play, gave up a 55-yard punt return to Terrence Wilkins that led to St. Louis' second touchdown and coughed up the ball on a fumble when Gannon was drilled by Leonared Little.

            Oakland's only points in the first half came on a 43-yard field goal from Sebastian Janikowski. It was the first time all season that the high-flying Raiders failed to score a touchdown in the first half.

            That they trailed only 14-3 was miraculous. Oakland's secondary had no answers for Holt or Bruce, who combined for eight catches, 137 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone, with Buchanon being the most victimized target in the Raiders' defensive backfield.

            The Rams, who have looked atrocious in starting the season 0-5, could have had a bigger lead were it not for a fumbled handoff exchange between Bulger and Faulk near the Raiders goal line. Oakland defensive end Tony Bryant recovered the loose ball at the two-yard line, keeping the Rams lead at 14-3.

            The second half started well enough for the Raiders. They stopped the Rams on three plays and forced them to punt on the first drive of the third quarter. Oakland then took the ball and marched from its own 26 down to the 14 before again stalling out and settling for a Janikowski field goal.

            After holding the Rams again, the Raiders missed a golden opportunity to get back in the game late in the third quarter. Oakland had moved all the way to the St. Louis 17 when, on third down and short, Gannon found a wide open Roland Williams at the 14. Gannon's pass hit Williams in the hands but the tight end couldn't hang on, dropping the ball while the boisterous crowd inside the Dome roared its approval.

            The Raiders tried to salvage a field goal, which would have brought them within a touchdown and two-point conversion of tying, but Janikowski's field goal attempt from 35 yards out missed its mark.

            That, as it turns out, was as close as Oakland would get to making a game of it. The Rams  gave the ball to Faulk three times and he gained 56 yards before getting out into the flat and hauling in a 10-yard scoring pass from Bulger to help make it 21-6.

            From there, the Rams defense pinned its ears back and went after Gannon hard. They intercepted him on two of the Raiders next three possessions, sacked him twice on Oakland's next-to-last drive and refused to allow anything close to a comeback.

            ''There were enough plays out there for everybody, including myself, to critique and criticize,'' said Gannon. ''We can't claim ignorance for this one. We knew coming in that this was a dangerous football team with a lot of weapons. We just didn't respond the way we needed to. We did everything we could to hurt ourselves.''


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