ATLANTA -- The St. Louis Rams have been called a track team in shoulder pads. Everything they do seems to be in fast forward.
But nothing compared to how fast the defending World Champions seized the momentum in Sunday's game inside the Georgia Dome. In a blink, St. Louis not only fended off an Atlanta Falcons scoring threat in the shadows of its own goal post, but the Rams managed to turn it into a rare defensive touchdown that stunned the Falcons and ignite a second-half blowout, 41-20.
In the time it took Keith Lyle to return Jamal Anderson's questionable fumble 94 yards for a touchdown -- less than 10 seconds -- Atlanta's hopes were crushed. Speed kills.
"If we score down there (early in the third quarter), the whole complexion of the game changes," said Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler. "That's what makes this real frustrating."
The Falcons were six yards away from taking the second half lead with its first drive of the second half. But Anderson's fumble, which appeared to come well after his forward progress had stopped, led to the second-longest fumble return in Rams history. Then a fumble on the ensuing kickoff led to a 30-yard Jeff Wilkins field goal and a 27-13 lead. Just like that, it was over.
"This is a test to where we are, and we're not close right now," said Atlanta coach Dan Reeves. "We gave up way too many big plays. We gave up a 94-yard touchdown when we were getting ready to take the lead. Then we fumbled the kickoff. That was 10 points scored very quickly."
St. Louis improved to 4-0 and assumed total control of the NFC West lead. Atlanta dropped to 2-2. More important, the team came away wondering who it got blind-sided so quickly.
"That's football," said defensive end Patrick Kerney. "There's such a small difference between making a play and not making the play. Once they started hitting, you could feel it slip away."
The same Rams defense that was ranked 30th of 31 teams in the National Football League had a field day against the slower, predictable Falcons. They held Atlanta to 286 total yards -- nearly 102 yards short of its average, collected eight quarterback sacks and forced the Falcons into four turnovers.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis offense rolled for 395 yards -- 111 short of their average. But its ability to strike quickly with touchdown receptions of 80, 85 and 66 yards helped it maintain its 40-points-a-game average as well as extend their National Football League record for consecutive regular season games with at least 30 points to 10.
"We are gaining momentum," said Rams coach Mike Martz. "This team is starting to gel and I think it's happening at the right time. This is a huge win for us."
The Falcons tried everything early to ignite a rally, but what has become an alarming trend held true when they failed to capitalize on many of their opportunities.
Atlanta recovered a fumbled punt just 1 minute, 14 seconds into the game and five plays later they turned that into a 3-yard Jamal Anderson touchdown for a 7-0 lead.
Then the Falcons recovered an on-sides kick following the touchdown, but three plays later quarterback Chris Chandler was intercepted by Dre' Bly and returned to the Atlanta 32 yardline. Wilkins kicked a 30-yard field goal six plays later.
St. Louis then got a pair of touchdown passes from Kurt Warner -- the first a 14-yard strike to Isaac Bruce, the second a tipped pass that turned into an 80-yard catch-and-run to Torry Holt -- while Atlanta settled for a couple Morten Andersen field goals -- one from 37 yards, the second from 45.
The Falcons had a chance to steal the momentum early in the third quarter when Kerney intercepted a Warner pass and returned it to the Rams 16-yardline. But four plays later Anderson fumbled at the 6-yardline and Keith Lyle returned it 94 yards for a touchdown.
"I was bending backward trying to break my fall and the ref was just standing there," Anderson said. "It was a ridiculous call. My forward progress was stopped and was clearly back of the line. They are jeopardizing my health. I was trying to break my fall."
Atlanta fumbled away the following kickoff and St. Louis converted that into a 30-yard Wilkins field goal.
The Rams were just getting warmed up.
Holt ran away from cornerback Ashley Ambrose for an 85-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, then Bruce ran away from cornerback Ray Buchanan for a 66-yard touchdown.
The Falcons managed to get Reggie Kelly his first professional touchdown on a 37-yard reception from Chandler early in the fourth quarter, but by then, the blowout was already in full gear.
Warner finished with 336 passing yards, four touchdowns and an interception on a 12 of 19 effort. In comparison, Chandler was good on 21 of 35 passes for 255 yards, two interceptions and a touchdown. Holt did the most damage for the Rams, catching three passes for 189 yards.
"Offensively, we are not doing the job," Reeves said after watching his team rush for 68 yards on 21 carries. "We just don't do the things we've got to do. We didn't execute. We are not taking advantage of the opportunities that we do have.
"We just have to keep plugging away to get where we need to be. We are not there yet."
While Atlanta continues to plug along, St. Louis would prefer to sprint. That difference was made obviously clear Sunday.
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