Bucs Clinch Berth; Rams on the Brink

Warrick Dunn, Shaun King and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pulled off the Great Escape and pushed the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams to the brink of elimination.

Dunn combined with King on one of the craziest plays of the season, then scored his third touchdown with 48 seconds remaining as the Buccaneers clinched a playoff spot Monday night with a 38-35 victory that left St. Louis needing help to make the postseason.

“It’s deflating,” Rams safety Keith Lyle said. “To lose by three points hurts because we had it wrapped up until that last drive.”

Rams Fall Short

Marshall Faulk scored four touchdowns for the Rams, but it was not enough in a rematch of last season’s NFC championship game won by St. Louis 11-6.

To reach the playoffs, the Rams (9-6) need to beat New Orleans next Sunday and hope Chicago (4-11) pulls an upset at Detroit.

“We controlled our own destiny up to this point. We didn’t get it done,” Rams quarterback Kurt Warner said. “We can’t look to anybody else and say it was their fault. It was our fault. We didn’t finish this thing. Now we need help.”

The win by Tampa Bay (10-5) also clinched the NFC West for New Orleans. The Buccaneers can still win the NFC Central with a victory at Green Bay on Sunday and a Minnesota loss at Indianapolis.

After Torry Holt’s 72-yard touchdown catch from Warner gave the Rams a 35-31 lead with just over five minutes to play, the Buccaneers rallied behind a wild play.

From their own 35, King threw a swing lateral to Dunn around the right side. But Dunn was trapped far behind the line and, as he was being dragged down, suddenly pitched the ball back to King.

King shook loose and streaked down the right sideline for a 15-yard gain, and 15 more yards were tacked on for a late hit called on linebacker Mike Jones.

“Shaun was just calling for the ball. We were desperate at the time,” Dunn said. “It turned out to be a great play.”

‘It Came Down to Two Plays’

Later, on a fourth-and-4 in Rams’ territory, King scrambled for a first down. King then threw a 22-yard pass to Reidel Anthony, which set up Dunn’s 1-yard TD run.

“I thought we had the thing won. It came down to two plays,” St. Louis coach Mike Martz said. “We had Dunn hemmed in there and then he made the pitch. … But we’re not out of this. We have a chance to be 10-6. We are going to go down to New Orleans and get after it.”

Warner tried to bring back the Rams, but threw his third interception of the game. John Lynch’s pickoff gave the Buccaneers sweet revenge from last season’s loss in the NFC title game.

Keyshawn Johnson caught two touchdown passes and Dunn rushed for more than 100 yards for the third time in four weeks.

Faulk scored four touchdowns for the second straight week and third time this season, breaking the NFL record he shared with Jim Brown.

Warner completed 20 of 32 passes for 316 yards and two TDs.

King, who led the 13-play, 80-yard drive to win the game, completed 18 of 38 passes for 256 yards. His TD throws of 8 and 17 yards to Johnson, who had seven catches for 116 yards, were Tampa Bay’s first touchdown passes in five games.

“We’ve always had faith in Shaun, even through the tough times,” said cornerback Ronde Barber, who had one of Tampa Bay’s interceptions. “People have been down on him. People have been down on us. He stepped up to the occasion.”

Tampa D Unravels

Dunn finished with 145 yards on 22 carries. He scored on a 2-yard run in the first quarter and his 52-yard burst on the final play of the third quarter gave the Bucs a 31-21 lead that their proud defense couldn’t hold.

St. Louis pulled within 31-28 on Faulk’s 9-yard run. Dexter McCleon’s interception in the end zone stopped Tampa Bay from scoring what might have been a clinching touchdown before Warner and Holt teamed to give the Rams their first lead since late in the second quarter.

The loss to the Rams in the title game prompted several major changes for the Bucs in the offseason.

Major Changes

Mike Shula was fired as offensive coordinator and replaced by Les Steckel, who helped the Tennessee Titans reach the Super Bowl against St. Louis. The offensive line was overhauled with the addition of free agents Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel and Johnson was obtained in a trade with the New York Jets.

But until Monday night, the Bucs had used their star receiver as mostly a decoy and Johnson’s frustration was beginning to boil over.

King missed him on a fade pattern near the goal line after Barber intercepted Warner on the Rams’ first possession. Tampa Bay settled for Martin Gramatica’s 35-yard field goal, and built a 24-14 halftime lead.

Faulk, who rushed for 79 yards on 22 carries and had four receptions for 53 yards, scored on first-half runs of 2 and 16 yards for the Rams. He caught a 27-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.

Warren Sapp sacked Warner twice, giving the 1999 defensive player of the year 15.5 on the season.