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Rams take care of business, Eagles

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ST. LOUIS — Back in the Super Bowl for the second time in three years, the St. Louis Rams believe they are even better than in 1999. Their defense is stingier, their offense is more versatile, they are more experienced.

And they are just as strong-willed as the first time around.

"In '99, it was really a dream season the way that it played out, and nobody expected us to do anything — that was a special year," NFL MVP Kurt Warner said after Sunday's 29-24 victory over Philadelphia gave the Rams the NFC title.

"This year may be a little more rewarding, because we were really the team that everybody wanted to beat from the get-go. We were favored from the start, and to be able to fight through the season and have the season we did, fight through these last two games and make it back to the Super Bowl, it's very rewarding.

"No doubt we have a lot of talent. But beyond that, you don't win as many games as we won and the tough ones we've won without having a lot of character. I tribute a lot of what we succeeded with this year to that character."

They needed that fortitude in the second half Sunday. Trailing 17-13 at halftime — just the second time the Rams were behind at halftime this season; St. Louis had outscored opponents 329-146 in the first half — the offense and defense displayed talent and grit.

Marshall Faulk carried on the first seven plays of the third quarter, and a 21-yard pass to Torry Holt got the Rams (16-2) into position for Jeff Wilkins' third field goal, a 41-yarder. He also had 39- and 27-yarders in the opening half.

The Eagles (13-6) went three-and-out, then Warner and favorite receiver Isaac Bruce took charge. Bruce caught three passes for 44 yards on a 71-yard march to Faulk's first 1-yard TD run.

After another three-and-out, the Eagles were floundering.

"They didn't change anything, the intensity just picked up a little bit," Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "In the first half we were just clicking on all cylinders. And not to say we weren't clicking on all cylinders in the second half; they controlled the time clock, and what they were doing was just running the ball and having the time clock run out."

Faulk, who rushed for a career playoff high of 159 yards, scored on another 1-yard dive, making it 27-19. Although McNabb led the Eagles back, scoring on a 3-yard run with 2:56 remaining, he was intercepted by All-Pro cornerback Aenaes Williams to kill Philadelphia's last real chance.

After Williams got his sixth career playoff interception, he ran all the way to his own end zone, flanked by jubilant teammates, to celebrate his first Super Bowl trip after 10 generally unrewarding seasons in Arizona.

"I've enjoyed the journey," Williams said. "This is a very special team."

Special enough to add another Vince Lombardi Trophy to the team's collection? Perhaps.

The last time New England lost was a 24-17 home defeat to the Rams on Nov. 18. And there's been something almost magical about the Patriots this season.

But there's been something very powerful about the Rams, who had the NFL's most prolific offense and a vastly improved defense that has been tremendously opportunistic in the playoffs. It forced eight turnovers against Green Bay last week and had a fumble recovery and an interception against Philadelphia.

"We played them once," Warner said, "and we had a great game with them. They are a very talented team, a fun team to watch and play, and they do some different things. (Coach Bill) Belichick had a different scheme when we played them the first time, and I'm sure he will come up with something for us this time. It should be fun."

Sunday's game wasn't a lot of fun in the first half for St. Louis — although it started well.

The Eagles, in their first conference championship game since the 1980 season, looked like novices early on. McNabb's first pass was blocked by Chidi Ahanotu. Pressured on the next play by Leonard Little, McNabb dropped the ball, and Brian Young recovered.

Warner's 4-yard pass to Bruce made it 7-0.

But the Eagles generally were the better team for the next 27 minutes and took the lead when McNabb hit Todd Pinkston for a 12-yard touchdown with 46 seconds left in the second quarter.

All-Pro David Akers had a 46-yard field goal for the Eagles, and Duce Staley scored on a 1-yard run.

Then came the decisive third quarter, when Philadelphia's blitzing defense couldn't get close to Warner or slow Faulk or Bruce (eight catches for 84 yards). Nor could the Eagles do anything with the ball.

So the Rams are headed to the Big Easy, Faulk's hometown.

"I couldn't ask for anything better than to go back to New Orleans and play in front of my friends and family," said Faulk, the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year three straight seasons. "I couldn't have written a script better than this. It's something every football player should get to feel."