October 13, 2000

Rams and Vikes Seek To Make It 6-0;

Big Rivalry Week Features Jaguars-Titans on MNF

Maybe when they play each other, one will lose.

Because it sure doesn't look like they're ready to do so before then.

Yes, the NFL's "Unbeaten & Untied" - the 5-0 Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams - do meet this season, in St. Louis on December 10 in Week 15.

But that's eight weeks from now. Surely, someone before then can manage to knock them out of the win column. Like, perhaps, this week, when each face that most dreaded of opponents - teams (division rivals, no less) looking to turn their season around with a win.

The Vikings play in Chicago Sunday night (ESPN, 8:35 PM ET) against the 1-5 Bears. The Rams host 2-4 Atlanta.

Mismatches? Not so fast. This is the NFL. Opponents don't roll over because you've got a superior record (the last time two teams started 6-0 were the Denver Broncos and Minnesota in 1998).

"We can't get too excited about being 5-0," says Minnesota wide receiver Randy Moss. "We can't get too confident. We're beatable. Everybody is beatable. But at the same time, if we come to play, we're tough to stop."

The Vikings are tough to stop. And, wow!, so are the Rams.

St. Louis averages 43.4 points and 505.4 yards a game. Don't go out for a hot dog, because every time these guys take a snap, there's the possibility of a touchdown. A long, exciting one, as a matter of fact. The Rams have produced touchdowns of 66, 72, 78, 80, 80, 85, 86 and 94 yards this year.

"They're electrifying," says 17-year NFL head coach Marv Levy, now a FOX Sports Net analyst. "The St. Louis Rams have the best offense I've ever seen in the NFL."

The Rams are on pace to establish at least 17 NFL offensive records this year. Included are possible NFL season passing records by Rams quarterback Kurt Warner for touchdowns, passer rating, yards, completion percentage and average gain.

The Warner "journeyman-to-Super Bowl MVP" story is now well-known to NFL fans. But leave it to Levy, a history buff, to put the Warner saga in perfect perspective.

"I've seen it only paralleled by Johnny Unitas," says Levy of Warner's rise to prominence.

A great comparison. From stockboy to stardom for Warner, from the sandlots to stardom and the Pro Football Hall of Fame for Unitas. Plus, they both wear crew cuts!

The Vikings may not put on the fireworks the Rams do - although their comeback victory over Tampa Bay this past Monday night was certainly explosive - but they actually have a better winning streak than St. Louis. In fact they have the best win streak in the NFL - eight regular-season victories in a row.

Their five victories this year come under the direction of second-year quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who, in essence, is in his first year, because he did not throw a pass as a rookie. He has made up for it this year, though, completing 64.0 percent of his attempts and compiling the third-best passer rating in the NFC (94.1).

In the process, Culpepper has joined seven other quarterbacks since 1960 - including Kurt Warner last year - who have won their first five starts.

"Daunte is a great player," says Vikings running back Robert Smith. "How many more times does he have to prove himself (like leading Monday-night's Minnesota's comeback) before people realize what kind of talent he is? He has stayed composed in a lot of different situations."

Composure will be called for in a lot of games this week…

In Washington, it will be the "Battle of the Beltway" when the Redskins host their cousins to the northeast, the Baltimore Ravens. Call it a "home game-and-a-half." The Ravens will take the shortest "road trip" of any NFL team this year - 72 miles round trip. In fact, Ravens players will sleep at the usual downtown Baltimore hotel they stay in the night before a home game, then bus to Washington's FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland Sunday morning. That's about a 35-minute ride.

Close by. In Maryland. But Ravens head coach Brian Billick is not at all being lulled into thinking this will be like a home game, as was recently suggested to him by an observer.

"You think this will be like a home game?" said Billick. "Come stand next to me at FedEx Field near kickoff and tell me `It's like a home game.'"

Home game, road game — it should be a heck of a game.

It will pit one of the NFC's top rushers, Washington's Stephen Davis (No. 2 in the conference with 597 yards), against an intractable run defense that is ranked No. 1 in the NFL, allowing a paltry 50.7 yards a game. And one that has not allowed a 100-yard rushing effort in 23 games, the best mark in the AFC. Davis already has two this year.

"That's probably the best defense in the league," says Davis.

Baltimore, 5-1 and leading the AFC Central, has surrendered the second-fewest points in the league (65, behind Miami's 51). Mixed in with that are three shutouts, half of the league's total this year.

That's all fine, says Billick, but the Redskins - 4-2 and tied with New York for first in the NFC East - are a serious hurdle.

"This is a major test because they're as good as anybody out there," says Billick. "We'll stay focused. I'll see to that."

Staying focused should not be a problem this week in Kansas City for either team when the fiirst-place Oakland Raiders (4-1) meet the second-place Chiefs (3-2) in Arrowhead Stadium in an AFC West battle.

Focus is a strong point for both teams. The Raiders come off a hair-raising overtime victory over San Francisco. The Chiefs have won their past two on fourth-quarter comebacks.

"That's one thing about this team," says Raiders running back Tyrone Wheatley, who has nine touchdowns in his past eight games. "We have great concentration when it comes down to it."

A big part of that concentration is spurred by the teams' two quarterbacks, who were teammates in KC from 1997-98.

The Raiders' Rich Gannon is not afraid to try anything to win. Stay in the pocket…animatedly discuss play selection on the sideline with 37-year-old head coach Jon Gruden, only three years older than him…or take things into his own hands and take off on a run, as he did 12 times last Sunday while rushing for 85 yards and a TD.

"That's his game," says Gruden. "He is a very creative quarterback. When he gets his rhythm, he is an outstanding passer. But he can really hurt you with his feet, getting away from rushes by just pulling the ball down and running."

The Chiefs' Elvis Grbac is more of a stay-at-home QB. And it has served him well this year. The eight-year veteran has thrown for the third-most TDs in the league (12) and is the AFC's second-ranked passer (95.3). Even better, Grbac is 4-1 lifetime against Oakland.

In Tennessee on Monday night, it might be the most compelling 4-1 vs. a 2-4 matchup of the year, because it's the Titans (4-1) vs. the Jaguars (2-4). The Jags are only six years old, the Titans in only their fourth year in Tennessee, but to these two AFC Central rivals, it might as well be "Cowboys-Redskins" or "Bears-Packers."

Until last season, the Jaguars had been swept in a season series only once in their history (by Cincinnati in 1995). The reigning division champion swept their 1999 schedule - except when they played the Titans. September 26 - a 20-19 Titans victory. December 26 - a 41-14 Titans victory. Then the big one, the AFC Championship Game - in Jacksonville - a 33-14 Titans victory on January 23. It was only the third time since 1970 that a team that had swept a season series also won the conference championship game against the same opponent.

"The shock was losing to them in the playoffs," says former Jaguars cornerback Dave Thomas, now with the New York Giants. "We prepared hard all week. To see that go down the drain, to see those guys celebrate on our field…"

This week, it's on the Titans' field, Adelphia Coliseum, upon which the Titans have never lost.

The Jaguars will have to find a way to stop Titans running back Eddie George, who comes off a career-high 36-carry game last Sunday that accounted for 181 yards and made him the AFC's leading rusher (497 yards). Big (6-3, 240) and durable, George has yet to miss a game in his five-year career.

"Basically, we say `we're going to run it on you and it doesn't matter who's on the offensive line,'" says backup Titans tackle Jason Mathews. "We're going to block for Eddie. And he is going to keep powering it up there."

Of course, the Jaguars have their weapons, too. They boast the AFC's third-ranked passing game (238.8), led by two premier receivers. Keenan McCar-dell (49) and Jimmy Smith (46) rank first and second in the AFC in catches, and first (Smith, 631) and fourth (McCardell, 532) in receiving yards.

"I know the Jaguars circled this game on their calendar when the schedule came out," says Titans head coach Jeff Fisher. "What either one of us has done up to this point means nothing. It's still Jacksonville, and they've become our rival in our division. They've had a difficult time, but that doesn't guarantee us anything. They'll be ready to play. It's going to be a huge challenge."

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