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Bad defense, special teams catch up to St. Louis

ATLANTA (AP) -- Michael Vick rolled to the left, brushed aside a rusher like a pesky gnat and took off the other way.

He didn't stop until 47 yards later.

The Atlanta Falcons were off and running -- and their one-of-a-kind quarterback had plenty of teammates along for the ride.

Warrick Dunn ran for a 62-yard touchdown, Allen Rossum set an NFL playoff record for punt returns and the Falcons routed the St. Louis Rams 47-17 on Saturday night.

Vick? He was right in the middle of things, of course, throwing a pair of touchdown passes and running for 119 yards to break Donovan McNabb's year-old record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a playoff game.

But Vick's teammates managed to escape his considerable shadow, putting Atlanta within one win of the Super Bowl.

"You saw a team that plays together," rookie coach Jim Mora said. "You saw a team that's pretty complete. We like to say in the locker room that the best player on our team is our team. We proved that tonight with the way we played."

The Falcons advanced to the NFC Championship Game for just the second time in the franchise's 39-year history. They will either host Minnesota or travel to Philadelphia next weekend for a spot in the Super Bowl.

The other time Atlanta made it this far was the 1998 season. The "Dirty Birds" got all the way to the Super Bowl, only to get blown out by Denver in John Elway's final game.

Now, a team known mostly for its inept play is on the verge of making it to Jacksonville, Fla., with a first-year coach. And speaking of Mora, he finally gave his family a playoff victory.

His dad, Jim Mora, took New Orleans and Indianapolis to the playoffs six times, only to go one-and-out each time. He's the only 100-win coach in NFL history without one postseason victory on his resume.

His son now has a 1-0 record in the playoffs -- and his dad, who was at the Georgia Dome, must have been pretty proud.

St. Louis won its last two regular-season games just to make the playoffs with an 8-8 mark and then knocked off NFC West champion Seattle last weekend. But the Rams ran out of gas against the Falcons, who were off last week and had not played a meaningful game in almost a month.

It didn't take long for those fresh legs to pay off, especially when matched against the Rams' woeful defense and special teams.

"I don't think I've been part of a loss like this," defensive end Bryce Fisher said. "We played like we had handcuffs on."

Vick's big run came on Atlanta's third offensive play, setting up an 18-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler just three minutes into the game.

The tone was set for the first half: It resembled a track meet more than a football game. The Falcons led 28-17, the teams combining on the second highest-scoring half for a divisional-round game in league history.

Rossum did more running than anyone. The 5-foot-8 return specialist returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown with less than a minute to go in the first half.

He wasn't done, setting an NFL playoff record with 152 yards on three punt returns -- a staggering 50.7-yard average.

"I truly left it all out on the field," Rossum said. "I'll have no trouble going to sleep tonight."

He had returns of 39 and 45 yards in the third quarter, setting up Vick's 6-yard touchdown pass to Peerless Price and Jay Feely's 38-yard field goal for a comfortable 38-17 lead.

Rossum broke the mark set by Minnesota's Anthony Carter, who had 143 yards in punt returns against the Saints during the 1987 season. In a fitting bit of symmetry, that was the first playoff loss for Mora's father.

Dunn rushed for 142 yards on just 17 carries, including the 62-yard touchdown that quickly eclipsed Vick's scamper for the longest run in Falcons playoff history. By the time Dunn was done, he had eclipsed Jamal Anderson's franchise record of 113 yards in a playoff game.

The Falcons looked every bit like the league's top running team, finishing with 327 of their 397 yards on the ground -- one of the greatest rushing games in playoff history.

Vick passed for only 82 yards but was an efficient 12-of-16.

"This is a very exciting time for us," he said. "The whole world is watching. This is something we've worked for all year. Why not go out there and enjoy the moment?"

Vick's only blemish was a fumble at the end of a run, and the Rams' defense had nothing to do with it. He simply lost the ball after stumbling to the turf without being touched.

Otherwise, Vick loomed large -- even when he didn't have the ball. The Rams assigned a linebacker or defensive back to keep an eye on him, but that created some huge holes for the running backs.

"They tried to play us in a certain defense and we were kind of expecting it," Vick said. "It backfired on them."

Rossum's touchdown was a thing of beauty, crafted by special teams coach Joe DeCamillas. The Falcons lined up three players for the punt, with Rossum faking a lateral pass to DeAngelo Hall before taking off up the middle without being touched to give Atlanta a
28-14 lead.

DeCamillas is the son-in-law of former Falcons coach Dan Reeves, who took Atlanta to its lone Super Bowl.

The Falcons exposed one of St. Louis' biggest weaknesses, an atrocious special teams unit. The Rams ranked at or near the bottom in every return category -- 30th in defending the punt.

Jeff Wilkins did give the Rams a glimmer of hope with a 55-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, but that was St. Louis' last hurrah.

The Atlanta defense made life miserable for Rams quarterback
Marc Bulger in the second half.

Brady Smith crushed Bulger in the end zone for a safety, Jason Webster had an interception and Keith Brooking forced Bulger into a fumble that was recovered by Travis Hall.

Brooking and Hall are the only holdovers from Atlanta's last Super Bowl team.

"Most times, the game comes down to four or five plays, and we're usually making them," Brooking said. "That reminds me of '98. We have a tremendous amount of resolve."

The Rams got some bad news before the game, learning that Isaac Bruce couldn't play because of a lingering groin injury.

Even though fill-in Kevin Curtis managed seven catches for 128 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown, it was pretty much downhill from there for St. Louis.

Bulger was 23-of-35 for 299 yards, also throwing a 28-yard touchdown pass to Torry Holt. It was a gutty effort by the Rams quarterback, who was really beat up over the final 30 minutes. Bulger hurt his lower back and the thumb on his non-throwing hand in the first half. He told reporters afterward he thought his thumb was broken.

But Bulger's bravery wasn't nearly enough.

"Every person in this locker room is a little stunned," Rams safety Antuan Edwards moaned. "In all phases of the game, we got whipped."