After yet another Seattle Seahawks receiver had dropped a catchable pass, after the St. Louis Rams had become the first 8-8 team to win an NFL playoff game, St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger barely mustered a half-hearted hooray. "I'm not surprised [that we won]," he said with typical nonchalance, following the 27-20 comeback victory. "Maybe the TV experts are, but my teammates and I knew we had this in us--and that's all that matters."
Bulger's performance in that NFC wild-card game at Seattle's Qwest Field last Saturday was a far cry from his first postseason appearance, in last year's divisional round, when he threw three interceptions in an overtime loss to the Carolina Panthers. In the waning minutes of that game, Rams coach Mike Martz had so little confidence in his quarterback that he played for a game-tying field goal rather than let Bulger take a shot at the end zone. On Saturday, Bulger was intercepted only once as he completed 18 of 32 passes for 313 yards and two scores, including the game-winner with 2:11 left.
"If you want somebody to take that last shot, you want it to be Marc," Martz said after the win over Seattle. "He's very special in that respect. He's very calm, very collected." Which is to say Bulger is the antithesis of the emotional--and often prickly--Martz, who this season angrily defended his play-calling (critics claimed he passed too often and didn't use rookie running back Stephen Jackson enough) and in December had a run-in with Kyle Turley after having questioned the injured tackle's character.
No one can question Bulger's character after he shook off an injury that could have denied him a shot at playoff redemption. On Dec. 5 he was sidelined with a sprained right shoulder, and St. Louis lost its next two games as 39-year-old backup Chris Chandler struggled. Standing 6--8 and needing wins over the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Jets to stay in the running for a playoff spot, the Rams' situation appeared bleak. "I needed another week [to heal], but with a must-win game against Philly, I didn't have that luxury," Bulger says. "Plus, there were guys hurt a lot worse than I was."
Bulger threw for 225 yards and one touchdown in a 20-7 win over the Eagles, then struck for 450 yards and three scores in a 32-29 overtime victory against the Jets. His sacrifice wasn't lost on Martz, who called Bulger into his office three days before the game against Seattle. "He wanted me to know he appreciates me, trusts me," Bulger said on Saturday. "He told me he loved me. That's what Coach Martz is really like."
With all that love flowing, the Rams jumped to a 14-3 lead against Seattle. But the Seahawks fought back behind quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (27 of 43, 341 yards and two touchdowns, despite five dropped balls by his receivers) and took a 20-17 lead on Hasselbeck's 23-yard scoring strike to wideout Darrell Jackson (12 catches, 128 yards and the touchdown) with 14:30 left.
Bulger answered with a seven-play, 76-yard scoring drive. On third-and-three from the Seattle 17, St. Louis ran the play Queen Right--Wing Motion--Fire Pass Right--Y Smash. Bulger's play-fake to tailback Marshall Faulk froze Seahawks safety Ken Hamlin, leaving tight end Cam Cleeland open. Bulger lofted a touch pass to Cleeland for the game's final points.
Seattle's last drive stalled with 27 seconds left, when wideout Bobby Engram provided a fitting end to Seattle's sloppy season by dropping a pass in the end zone. After taking a knee to end the game, Bulger simply stood and smiled as his euphoric teammates swarmed around him--the calm center, of a gathering storm. --Josh Elliott
DR. Z'S FORECAST: RAMS vs. FALCONS
I'M NOT SOLD on the Rams' offensive line. If Marc Bulger has time, St. Louis can beat anybody, but I think the Falcons' rush will be too quick. That means the Rams will probably have to hold six or seven guys back to max-protect, which makes it easier on the Atlanta secondary. The Falcons will get their points, and Michael Vick will get his 75 or 80 yards on the ground. Atlanta takes it.