ST. LOUIS -- Unlike the mass destruction of losses past, the Atlanta Falcons left the Trans World Dome on Sunday with a pulse.
Buried in the rubble of a 45-29 loss that dropped Atlanta to a 2-5 record, were signs, however faint, of life. If the Falcons hope to get better during the second half of the season, they finally have something of a foundation.
An offensive line that's been inept for most of the team's current four-game losing streak came alive. With Ephraim Salaam back at right tackle for the first time this year, they gave quarterback Chris Chandler plenty of time to throw and they opened huge holes for Jamal Anderson to run through.
Anderson, who's still trying to get back to the form that helped carry Atlanta to the Super Bowl two years ago, seemed to regain his explosive first step. His 64 rushing and 67 receiving yards were the most in total offense since he had major reconstructive surgery on his right knee a year ago.
And a defense that still gives up too many big plays held what's proving to be the most-prolific offense in National Football League history to just two touchdowns in the second half.
But with all those improvements, why did St. Louis still win by 16 points?
His 208 rushing yards were the most against Atlanta in team history, erasing a 191-yard performance by Cleveland's Greg Pruitt in 1977. And if that wasn't enough, the All-Pro tailback added another 78 yards by catching seven Kurt Warner passes.
"That guy's ridiculous," said Falcons receiver Tim Dwight. "It's unfair what he can do."
Faulk's most important contribution to St. Louis' 529-yard effort came after Dwight caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Chris Chandler with 4:27 to play to cut the Rams' lead to eight points, 37-29. Faulk had runs of 19, 3, 19, 6, 2 and 3 yards -- the final three resulting in a St. Louis touchdown that squashed the upset bid with 69 seconds remaining.
"You know that if you go out and make the plays that we are going to win," Faulk said. "You have to take your hat off to their team, but in the end, our team made more plays than their offense."
The Falcons didn't need mere improvement. They needed perfection against a team that improved to 6-0.
"Of course I was disappointed that we didn't get the job done," said Atlanta coach Dan Reeves. "But I'm extremely happy and pleased for our football team because I thought we played hard. The guys stepped up, you know they kept playing hard, and we had a chance late in the fourth quarter to steal the ballgame."
The Atlanta offense only had 259 total yards. But unlike the two previous losses -- which included no touchdowns by the offense -- they were efficient with their chances. The Falcons scored touchdowns all three times they got the ball inside the Rams 20 yard line and they had the St. Louis secondary hanging on -- literally -- for dear life. The Rams were called for six defensive pass interference and holding penalties.
"We lost, but yeah, we played better," Chandler said after hitting 18 of 30 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns. "We gained some confidence today. We took our shots. We were aggressive. We gave Jamal some room to run. Now I'm much more confident to get after it."
Especially since Atlanta doesn't have to play the Rams again until next season.
Warner tied Steve Young's two-year-old record for six consecutive 300-yard passing games by hitting 24 of 40 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns. He fired completions to seven different receivers, but his best weapon was Faulk, who had seven catches for 78 yards.
"Their defense kept knocking us out," Warner said. "They did a great job up front. They got a lot of pressure on us and there were guys on our team that got open but I was not always able to get the ball to them. We made enough plays to get us the win."
Both teams couldn't score quick enough to open the game. Atlanta's Darrick Vaughn returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. The play took 16 seconds. St. Louis responded with a 103-yard kickoff return by Tony Horne for a touchdown. That play took 20 seconds.
The back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns is an NFL record.
Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins hurt his thigh on the opening kickoff. Although he was able to add the first point after touchdown kick and the ensuing kickoff, he had to leave the game for good after just 46 seconds.
With Wilkins on the bench, the Rams converted an NFL-record four 2-point conversions.
Late in the first quarter, Chandler led the Falcons 64 yards in eight plays, ending it with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Terance Mathis.
St. Louis came back with three touchdowns in the second quarter -- a 3-yard reception by Horne from Warner, a 2-yard run by Justin Watson and an inexcusable 30-yard catch by Az-Zahir Hakim with 3 seconds remaining before halftime. The final score before intermission came on a fourth-and-15 situation and with the Rams out of timeouts. As long as the Falcons defense kept St. Louis from scoring, they would have gone into the locker room tied, 21-21.
"That play was huge," Reeves said. "All we had to do was make the tackle and we didn't make the tackle. Of course, there were a lot of defenses we should have been in than what we were in (a three-deep zone against four wide receivers)."
The Rams only scored once in the third quarter, getting a 12-yard pass from Warner to Robert Holcombe with 6:57 to play. Their third 2-point conversion gave them a 37-21 lead heading into the fourth period.
Atlanta returns to the Georgia Dome next week to kick off a three-game homestand against New Orleans.
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