ATLANTA - The demise of the St. Louis Rams apparently was greatly exaggerated.
So were Atlanta's playoff hopes.
The Falcons crash landed Sunday afternoon inside the Georgia Dome in a 35-6 loss to the Greatest Show on Earth. And with it, the Rams again clarified their position as the premier team in the National Football League, while Atlanta proved it still has a difficult fight ahead just to be a wild card team.
While the defeat was only the first in the past four games for the Falcons, it was thorough and resounding. It started on the fourth play of the game, when Chris Chandler's pass was intercepted by Dre' Bly and returned 56 yards for a touchdown. It continued when Chandler left the game shortly before halftime with a sprained left ankle. And it didn't end until most of the 59,318 fans were in the parking lots - or beyond.
Atlanta's problems didn't end with the loss. Chandler's status for Sunday's home game with New Orleans will be in doubt all week. If he can't play, rookie Michael Vick, who was 7 of 18 for 94 yards in relief, will have to play against the Saints in a game that likely will determine whether Atlanta will be a part of the playoff race.
The Rams came in with a lot of questions, but they left with a renewed sense of confidence. They had committed 26 turnovers in their past six games, but they were flawless while cranking out 422 total yards that included touchdown catches of 19, 9 and 65 yards for Marshall Faulk.
A team that spent the past week complaining about the 18,000 unsold tickets for the game probably should have concentrated more on its pass defense. Kurt Warner completed 17 of 23 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns and in the process exposed the soft spots in the Atlanta secondary, especially the deep middle.
At 6-5, the Falcons would not be a playoff team if the postseason were to start today. The Rams improved to an NFC-best 9-2.
Bly's interception gave St. Louis a 7-0 lead with 12:32 remaining in the first quarter, but the Falcons came back with a seven-play drive that ended with a 41-yard Jay Feely field goal.
Faulk then caught a 19-yard pass from Warner late in the first to push the advantage to 14-3.
Feely added a 24-yard field goal after the Falcons didn't chance a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Chandler was hurt on the second-to-last play of the first half when Jeff Zgonina bounced off a Kynan Forney block and landed on the side of Chandler's extended left leg as he stepped forward to throw a 19-yard completion to Shawn Jefferson.
"I felt bad," Zgonina said. "You never want to see anyone get hurt. But their guy pushed me into him."
Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said Chandler sustained a severe ankle sprain, but X-rays didn't reveal any broken bones. "He's lucky nothing was torn in there from the way things looked," Reeves said. "At least that's encouraging."
It only got worse for the Falcons in the second half.
St. Louis scored on a 45-yard Torry Holt reception and a nine-yard catch by Faulk on its first two possessions, then they added a 65-yard catch and run by Faulk midway in the final quarter.
"We didn't stand up to the test," Reeves said. "We thought we had a good chance. We just didn't get it done.
"The Rams are a team out there that if they aren't the best, they're one of them. We've just got to keep working to get where we need to be. I felt like we played hard. We just couldn't stop them, especially in the second half."
Chandler completed 14 of 18 passes for 123 yards before he got hurt. Vick wound up as Atlanta's leading rusher with 52 yards in scrambles.
Warner did most of his damage in the second half. He completed 9 of 12 passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns after the intermission.
"We just didn't make the plays in our coverage when we had to," said middle linebacker Keith Brooking. "These guys are fast. They have a lot of weapons. It's painful. It's very frustrating. We put in a lot of hours this week getting ready for this one."
After losing 24-17 on Nov. 26 to Tampa Bay, the Rams needed more than a victory. They needed to reassert themselves as the team to beat in the NFC.
"There were a lot of good things that happened in the game," said St. Louis coach Mike Martz. "The effort by our defense to keep them to six points and the performance that they had was nothing short of outstanding. Offensively we did what we were supposed to do. The second half is when you're supposed to come out and take control of the game, and that's what we did."
Faulk finished with 70 rushing yards and another 128 in receptions.
"It's been a tough season so far for us," Faulk said. "Everyone we play, we get their best shot, and we've stood up and taken them. We've won nine games. This is how it's been for the whole season, so we feel prepared for the schedule ahead."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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