TAMPA, Fla. -- The St. Louis Rams have fallen, and there's no telling when they'll get up.
They are battered, embarrassed and -- after Tampa Bay's 26-14 victory Monday night -- 0-3 in a nonstrike season for the first time since 1963.
"You just feel sick," tight end Ernie Conwell said. "You sit here in disbelief. I think that's the feeling of this team."
Trailing by five with two minutes to play, the Rams had a chance to reverse their fortunes. But, just as they did in "Monday Night Football" victories over St. Louis the last two seasons, the Buccaneers came up with a big play at the end.
This time, linebacker Derrick Brooks logged Tampa Bay's fourth interception of the game, pulling down a Kurt Warner pass at the Ram 39 and dashing down the sideline for the decisive touchdown. It was Brooks who made a tide-turning play early in the second quarter, when he upended running back Marshall Faulk.
Faulk, the NFL's most valuable player two of the last three seasons, was escorted to the locker room where he was diagnosed with a strained neck and will have an MRI exam Tuesday.
Faulk was a glassy-eyed spectator in the second half, watching his once-high-octane offense sputter and wheeze.
The Buccaneers (2-1) gradually built on their 13-7 halftime lead, increasing the advantage to 19-7 early in the fourth quarter when Mike Alstott plunged into the end zone from the two. Cornerback Brian Kelly set up that touchdown with a 31-yard interception return.
"All week we have been telling each other to keep our eyes on Kurt Warner," said Kelly. "We were getting good reads on the ball. All game we were getting good jumps on the ball. For some reason, he's been looking real hard at his receivers. We just sat in our zone and had to read him."
Warner, who insists he isn't bothered by the injured thumb that hampered him last season, didn't look himself all night. His normally sharp passes fluttered and wobbled. Afterward, he offered no excuses, but something is clearly wrong. On consecutive drives in the third quarter, the Ram offense generated nine, one and eight yards. This from a team that averaged 32.6 points a game last season -- and now is averaging 17.
"We'll get out of this hole," Warner said. "Its frustrating that we haven't gotten out of it yet, and we're making so many mistakes out there it doesn't even resemble the same team I've seen here for three years, especially from an offensive standpoint.
"We've got to suck it up, we've got to dig down deep, and we've got to get through this thing."
There was no getting through it Monday, even though the Rams had considerably more yardage (358 to 252) and far more plays (70 to 49). This game was dictated by Tampa Bay's defense.
"To be able to get a victory on Monday night in front of your home crowd this early in the season hopefully will give us some momentum," Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden said. "It's something we can build on."
Meanwhile, the Rams are reeling, and not only on offense. Coming into the game, the Rams had seven pass plays of 20 yards or longer but had surrendered nine such plays. Almost all of those breakdowns happened on throws over the middle and frequently involved shoddy tackling.
That's especially surprising because the Rams returned 10 defensive starters, and are that much more familiar with the system of second-year defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. A former Buccaneer linebackers coach, Smith took over a wobbly Ram defense in 2001 and improved its ranking from 23rd to third.
"At this time last year we were doing some of the same things wrong, but we found a way to make a couple of plays in the end and win it," Smith said in the week leading up to Monday's game.
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