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Soft schedules lead to

Seconds after Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Shaun King's fourth-down pass was

swatted down in the end zone by a pack of St. Louis Ram defenders, unimaginative sports writers throughout the Trans World Dome press box revved up their laptops to chronicle the 11-6 victory that earned St. Louis a date with the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV next weekend.

Pull up any of those stories and search for "Cinderella," "underdog" or "glass slipper" - I'm willing to bet at least one of them will be in there somewhere.

All year long, the media has delighted in painting the Rams as the rags-to-riches success story of the 1999 NFL season, but it just wasn't so. St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner did in fact come from nowhere (a.k.a. Arena Football and NFL Europe) to win League MVP honors, but no one should be surprised that teams like the Rams, who went 4-12 last year, emerged as arguably the NFL's most dominant team. You have just got to remember exactly who it is they're dominating.

Every season, a few heretofore hapless clubs put together impressive seasons based largely on one thing: patsy opponents. I'm not denying that St. Louis has a frightening offensive arsenal and a solid defense. All I'm asking from the sports fans and media folks who are presently anointing the Rams as the next great NFL superpower is a little historical perspective. Doesn't anyone remember the 1998 Atlanta Falcons?

Last season, the Falcons shocked just about everyone by riding halfback Jamal Anderson and quarterback Chris "Handle With Care" Chandler all the way to the NFC title, going 11-5 and originating a now-forgotten dance dubbed "The Dirty Bird."

For years, Atlanta had been the recipient of easy schedules suitable for a club lingering in the NFC West cellar. Last season, the Birds finally got enough genuine talent and coaching to take advantage of that downy soft schedule.

How did they do this season with a schedule geared for an 11-win division champion? 5-11. Oh I know, Anderson and Chandler went down in quick succession at the beginning of the year, but the Falcons had all sorts of problems in 1999 that had nothing to do with their offensive backfield.

Both St. Louis and Atlanta played Tennessee and Baltimore and faced divisional opponents San Francisco, New Orleans and Carolina two times each. But the Rams' poor showing last year allowed them to meet Cleveland, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, while the Falcons, as reigning division champs, drew Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Minnesota.

The bottom line is St. Louis' 13-3 mark was constructed against opponents who combined for a 93-163 record this year. The story is the same in Jacksonville (100-156), Tennessee (110-146) and Tampa Bay (116-140), each of which had more than a few easy victories en route to their conference title games.

I'm not claiming that the Rams, Jaguars, Titans and Bucs don't have some All-Pro talent on both sides of the ball. But any careful observer cannot overlook the impact of the NFL's weighted scheduling system. The Rams are not the little guys triumphing over traditional NFL powers to play in the Big Game. They are simply a good team that took full advantage of a very easy schedule. If the road to the Super Bowl goes through St. Louis next year, when the Scrams play top-notch opponents in the regular season, only then will I sign up to join the yellow-and-blue bandwagon.