ATLANTA -- The St. Louis Rams spent all night chasing Atlanta's speedy runners -- usually from behind.
A porous defense and woeful special teams left St. Louis looking overmatched in a 47-17 playoff loss to the Falcons on Saturday, slamming the brakes on a late-season surge that had Rams players and coaches believing they were back to Super Bowl form.
"We felt like we were playing with handcuffs on," defensive end Bryce Fisher said. "You couldn't have convinced me that we would go out there and let them hang 47 on us."
All year, the Rams (9-8) struggled to grasp new defensive coordinator Larry Marmie's system. After three weeks of promising play, all against playoff teams, they reverted to ineptness and were no impediment to Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn.
The Falcons gained 292 yards in the first half alone, scoring on their first three possessions in mostly lightning-quick fashion. Atlanta finished with an astounding 327 yards rushing, an embarrassing total the St. Louis defense will have to live with the
Even worse, the Rams knew exactly what was coming.
"We weren't shocked by anything they did because it was everything we practiced this week," defensive end Leonard Little said. "We just couldn't stop them. Ain't no science to it."
Special teams that ranked at or near the bottom of the NFL in all categories, after one strong week during a victory in Seattle, also came back to bite the Rams. Allen Rossum's 68-yard punt return capped a 28-point first half for the Falcons, and by midway through the third quarter Rossum had set an NFL playoff record with 152 yards on only three punt returns.
"We've got some holes, obviously, that we've got to fix," coach Mike Martz said. "We've got our work cut out for us."
All of those big deficiencies left the St. Louis offense playing a futile game of catch-up from the start. And even if their big-play offense had been clicking, it's hard to imagine the Rams could have climbed out of their deep hole.
The Rams have struggled on defense for years despite an emphasis on that side of the ball in the draft -- there were four first-rounders on the defensive roster Saturday. Three of them were on the line that got pushed around by the Falcons.
Even with wide receiver Isaac Bruce inactive because of a groin injury that limited him in practice all week, the Rams had 242 yards at halftime, capped by Jeff Wilkins' season-best 55-yard field goal.
Kevin Curtis, Bruce's replacement, caught seven passes for 128 yards and a 57-yard touchdown.
But by late in the half the Rams had been reduced to a one-dimensional team, and quarterback Marc Bulger was punished as a result. He was sacked four times, once for a safety and another for a lost fumble.
"Our goal is to win the Super Bowl, and we won one playoff game," Bulger said. "Big deal."
Bulger, who was 23-for-35 for 299 yards, played the second half with what he believed was a broken left thumb.
"I played as bad as everyone else," he said. "We didn't make plays on offense when we had to. It reminded me a lot of the last time we played them."
Counting a victory in Week 2, the Falcons outscored the Rams 81-34 this season.
Unlike the well-rested Falcons, the Rams had to win their last two games to sneak into the playoffs at 8-8. Bulger said fatigue and the weekly pressure might have been a factor.
"No question, it was," Martz said. "That's just the hand that's dealt to you."
Offensive guard Tom Nutten left near the end of the first half after aggravating an injured right knee that has bothered him in recent weeks. Nutten, who came out of retirement to help an injury-riddled line this year, said he might retire again for good.