Insult to Injury
The Saints dumped the mighty Rams, then labeled their bitter
rivals a finesse team

Nothing makes the blood of Rams coach Mike Martz and his players
boil faster than the use of the dreaded f word. No, not that one.
We're talking about the manhood-challenging f bomb that New
Orleans coach Jim Haslett dropped on the Rams after the Saints'
weird 34-31 win in St. Louis on Sunday.

"The Rams can say whatever they want," Haslett, who loves being
the burr under the saddle of the best team in football, told SI.
"But they're a finesse team. You start hitting them, and it
affects them. Make no mistake about it. That's what happened out
there today."

In NFL parlance tagging a franchise as a finesse team is like
accusing an ironworker of cross-dressing. Jets cornerback Marcus
Coleman called the Rams a finesse team before their Oct. 21
meeting, and St. Louis players said that was a prime source of
motivation in a 34-14 rout of New York, a game in which the Rams'
Trung Canidate ran for 195 yards. "Finesse this," one Ram said on
his way out of Giants Stadium that day. When the word was uttered
again, this time by a bitter rival, it lit a fuse in the Rams'
locker room.

"Did we lay down and die? No," said quarterback Kurt Warner,
whose four interceptions helped hand the Saints this one. He
shook his head. "Maybe we are a finesse team. What is a finesse
team anyway? I've never seen us back down from anything
physical."

While sitting in the coaches' room, Martz chose his words
carefully. "We are what we are," he said, "and whatever that is,
we've won more games than anyone else in the last three years.
Certainly more than New Orleans. I believe in this team, and I
believe in what we do. I promise you we will not change."

Since the start of the 1999 season, when Martz arrived as
offensive coordinator and turned the attack into an air show, the
Rams have a league-best 29 wins, one more than the Titans. Still,
the question is, If the Rams don't change, are they good
enough--and physical enough--to win their second Super Bowl in
three years?

The answer is yes--but the Rams did not lose to the Saints because
they're a finesse team. They lost because they turned the ball
over eight times, running their giveaway total to 17 in the three
defeats they have suffered to New Orleans since Haslett took over
in 2000. The physicality of the Saints contributed to the
turnovers, but Warner didn't throw a screen pass into defensive
end Darren Howard's breadbasket because New Orleans is tougher
than St. Louis.

The Rams have shown us two things this season. One: They are not
pushovers in the knock-down, drag-out affairs that games
sometimes become, but they have had trouble running the ball.
Already this year they've played four back-alley-brawling
defensive teams--the Eagles, Dolphins, Giants and Saints--and
beaten three of them. However, in those four games, they've
rushed for a below-league-average 3.5 yards a carry. If they'd
mounted just one long drive on Sunday, they would have stemmed
the momentum of the Saints' 25-0 third-quarter rally. Instead,
their four third-quarter possessions ended with a sack and three
interceptions. (They also fumbled on a kickoff return.) No drive
lasted longer than three plays, and the Rams ran the ball only
once in that stretch.

Two: Even though he's tough as nails, when Warner is chased and
hit, he can be mortal. With the quarterback operating out of so
many empty-backfield sets, the Rams are taking a big risk.
Hitting the quarterback has been so ingrained in the Saints that
when Howard intercepted that screen pass and lumbered downfield,
he lowered his shoulder and rammed into Warner rather than trying
to deke him. The Saints believe that the more Warner throws, the
better it is for the defense--because he's exposed to more hits
and because they have such a good track record of forcing
turnovers. In his last two games against New Orleans, Warner has
been picked off seven times in 87 attempts. Strong safety Sammy
Knight had two interceptions in the Saints' playoff win last
season and two more on Sunday. "If you try to read Kurt's eyes,
he'll kill you, because he never gives away where he's throwing,"
Knight said. "You have to let him keep throwing deep, and you
turn into one of the receivers."

Nevertheless, if Warner stays healthy, the Rams remain the team
to beat. After taking a month to rest a right knee bruise,
Marshall Faulk is expected back when St. Louis returns from its
bye week on Nov. 11 against Carolina. You want physical? Faulk
had a brilliant 220-yard rushing game against the Saints in the
playoff-clinching win at the Superdome last Christmas Eve. Martz
is certain to use Faulk to eat up the clock as the season winds
down.

Let's face it: Although on occasion they'll need to stand
toe-to-toe with the Tysons of the league, the 6-1 Rams still have
the fewest weaknesses of any team in the NFL. Plus, seven of
their final nine games are against teams that are at or below
.500. Haslett, whether he meant it or not, was right when he told
Martz after the game, "You've got the best team in football."

St. Louis is the best team for football too. The game needs more
mad scientists and fewer grind-it-out coaches. In the first half
on Sunday, shortly before Warner stepped under center to start
another in a series of anything-is-possible drives, the crowd
murmured excitedly. What's next? An inside handoff to the tight
end? A hook-and-lateral sprint-out by Az Hakim? The Rams would be
foolish to do anything more than tinker with what got them this
far. If this is finesse football, keep it coming.

Quarterback Shuffle
Leaf a Changed Man in Dallas?

Ryan Leaf has been in Dallas only since Oct. 6, but the former
Chargers problem child has been preparing for his trial by fire
with the moribund Cowboys in a hardworking, very un-Leaf-like
way. Leaf, the second pick in the 1998 draft, has come in on his
Tuesday off days and has worked an extra two hours almost every
other day. "I don't think people change their spots," says
cautiously optimistic Dallas coach Dave Campo, "but I think their
spots can get smaller."

Leaf, a head case disliked by his Chargers teammates because of
his lackadaisical approach, was disastrous with San Diego (48%
passer, 13 touchdowns, 33 interceptions), and Tampa Bay cut him
loose this summer, in part because of an injured throwing wrist.
Rest has helped--he's been rifling the ball accurately in
practice--but Leaf still may need postseason surgery. Meanwhile
he's been practicing a series of plays called the Ryan Package.
His debut could come as early as this Sunday against the Giants.

"The knock on this team is that it's no good," Leaf said last
week, "and the knock on me is that I'm a bust. You're going to
have people saying that until you can play your way out of it."

Ravens' Defensive Woes
Lewis: I Need to Pack More Punch

Baltimore is surrendering a touchdown more per game this season
than last (17.0 points per game through seven games, compared
with 10.3 for all of last season), and everyone's trying to
explain why. The line hasn't been as imposing, which means top
cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Duane Starks have been burned
more than they were last year. (On Sunday, Jacksonville wideouts
Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith combined for 17 catches and 237
yards.)

But another odd thing is happening: Teams are running right at
middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "That's what I see watching tape," a
scout for one team says. "It seems like teams would rather not
let Ray get a head of steam and run at them."

Lewis (with a pedestrian 13 solo tackles over the past three
games) believes he is suffering from shedding a few pounds in the
off-season to get faster. "I might need to put on weight," he
says. "I get there, but my hits don't have the same effect."

My Two Cents
What's with All The Noise?

1. When is the league going to do something about the
ear-shattering noise levels at the Metrodome? The piped-in rock
music is an affront to fair play, especially when it impedes an
opposing offense's ability to be heard.

2. The hand-wringing over the usually efficient Peyton Manning's
nine interceptions in six games is absurd. Coaches and scouts
keep asking, What's wrong with Manning? I keep saying, Nothing.
Four of the interceptions were either tipped or the result of a
receiver's running the wrong route. Winning quarterbacks have
always thrown interceptions. Last year Kurt Warner threw 5.2
interceptions per 100 passes; Manning's on a 4.5 pace this year.
Big deal. He's trying to make plays to win games.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Dre' Bly's fumble on a kickoff return was one of four St. Louis turnovers in the third quarter. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN Smith burned Baltimore's defense for 119 receiving yards and a touchdown.

the football Beat

WORD ASSOCIATION
With Zach Thomas, the Dolphins' undersized Pro Bowl linebacker

SI: Jimmy Johnson.

Thomas: Best coach. My favorite coach. I owe him for picking me
in the fifth round when everyone said I was too small [5'11"],
and starting me over an established player, Jack Del Rio.

SI: Overcoming obstacles.

Thomas: I grew up on a farm. When I was 2 1/2, a truck ran over
me. My hearing was affected by that, so I learned to read lips.
In college [at Texas Tech] I got a couple plays off the Rice
coach reading his lips. I had some learning disability, and I had
to work hard so I wouldn't be the dumb kid everyone laughed at in
school.

SI: Size.

Thomas: If I were 6'2", 245, I wouldn't be in the league. I would
not have worked as hard as I did.

SI: NFL highlight.

Thomas: Standing on the sideline before my first game, in 1996.
Tears coming down my face. Thinking, Man, I made it!

SI: New York Jets.

Thomas: I love New York, but I hate the Jets. Losing seven in a
row to them means one thing: They're in our heads. One bad play,
we go in the tank.

SI: Your motivation.

Thomas: Trying to prove everyone wrong who said I couldn't do it.
I've been that way my whole life, but failure's my biggest fear.

MATCH GAME
Broncos vs. Raiders: Oakland is the better team, but Denver has
its number

The Broncos have won 11 of the last 12 in the series and are 6-0
since Jon Gruden began prowling the Oakland sideline. Two things
should work in the Raiders' favor on Monday night: the absences
of Ed McCaffrey and Greg Robinson. McCaffrey, out with a broken
leg, has averaged 6.2 catches a game against Gruden's Raiders and
always took advantage of his seven-inch height edge over
cornerback Eric Allen. Robinson, the defensive coordinator who
was pushed out after the 2000 season, gave Gruden's offense fits
with odd blitzes and nine-man fronts. Under Gruden the Raiders
have averaged only 18.8 points a game against Denver, 6.1 points
fewer than they've averaged against everyone else. This should be
Oakland's night. Of course, it has looked like Oakland's night
going into a lot of games in this series.

HISTORY BOOK
Nov. 3, 1979: After quitting football for boxing, Too Tall Jones
makes an inauspicious ring debut

Early in 1979 Cowboys defensive end Ed (Too Tall) Jones decided
to do what he'd longed to try ever since he was a youngster
sitting on his father's lap, listening to title fights on the
radio: He quit football for the ring. "I didn't think I'd play
football again," the 6'9" Jones recalled last week. Jones moved
to New York City and trained with lightweight Ray (Boom Boom)
Mancini. In his first bout Jones faced heavyweight Yaqui Meneses
in Las Cruces, N.Mex. He won a split decision but not the respect
of the boxing press after chasing Meneses around the ring. "He
chose to run," Jones says. "I hadn't learned to cut off the ring
yet." After building a 6-0 mark against tomato cans, the
274-pound Jones returned to football in 1980 and the next year
played in his first of three straight Pro Bowls. Jones, who
retired in 1989, says he has no regrets about his foray into
boxing. "I've never been as excited as I was when I stepped into
the ring."

Dispatches

Cleveland's Butch Davis continues to break the mold. Last week,
with the Browns in their bye week, he dispatched his coaching
staff to college campuses for two days of scouting--an
unheard-of in-season exercise. "If one point keeps getting
driven home to me in my first year," says Davis, "it's how vital
it is to develop your own players." Except for the expansion
Texans, the Browns have more picks (nine) than any other team in
the draft....The Eagles, inexplicably, have put a good running
game in mothballs. Of the 87 snaps they had in their last two
games, a one-point victory over the Giants and a 10-point loss
to the Raiders, only 24 have been runs by the backs. Duce Staley
and Correll Buckhalter are a strong one-two punch; coach Andy
Reid must use them more....The Steelers and the Bears, two of
the league's surprises, have something else in common: Ronnie
Lott-style enforcers at safety. Chicago's Mike Brown and
Pittsburgh's Lee Flowers are the backbone that a defense must
have to be great. "Lee's probably a bigger hitter, Mike a more
solid tackler," says Redskins vice president of personnel John
Schneider. "But they're squatly built tough guys. Smart.
Instinctive." On the first play of overtime against the Niners
on Sunday, Brown returned an interception 33 yards for a
touchdown....The Lions, 0-6 for the first time since 1955, have
more penalty yards (503) than rushing yards (474)....A punter
can't have a better day than the Raiders' Shane Lechler did in
Philly. The first four of his five punts went out of bounds or
were downed at the Eagles' seven-, six-, 11- and 12-yard lines;
his last went to the nine and was returned to the Oakland 49 on
a lateral late in the game.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)