Az-zahir Hakim went 86 yards on a punt return and took a short pass from Kurt Warner 80 yards for another score as the Rams' scoring machine picked up where it left off last season and beat the Denver Broncos 41-36 in a battle of the last two Super Bowl champions.
But it took Robert Holcombe's 1-yard TD run with 2:58 left following a 30-yard run by Marshall Faulk to give the Rams the win. It came a little over three minutes after Terrell Buckley had returned an interception 25 yards for a score to give Denver a 36-35 lead after trailing by 15 points in the third quarter.
Warner, who was 25-of-35 for 441 yards, had three TD passes, two of them covering 152 yards in the third quarter on throws in the flat that were perhaps 20 yards in the air sideways. One was the pass to Hakim and the other, four minutes earlier, was to Faulk, who took it 72 yards for a TD.
The Broncos were nearly as effective on offense although after Holcombe's TD the Rams defense finally asserted itself with sacks by D'Marco Farr and Kevin Carter. Then Grant Wistrom hit Brian Griese from behind on fourth-and-33, forcing his desperation pass awry.
Despite losing running back Terrell Davis to a twisted left ankle in the second quarter, the Broncos moved the ball almost as well as the Rams although not as quickly. Olandis Gary replaced Davis and gained 80 yards in 13 carries
Griese, who was 19-of-28 for 307 yards, threw for two TDs and ran for a third.
At times, it looked like a game in the Arena League, where Warner apprenticed.
Both teams scored on all of their possessions in the second quarter until halftime stopped the Broncos.
And each scored again in the first two series of the second half, making it six scores in seven possessions with the difference the TDs scored by the Rams against field goals by the Broncos. In all, there were scores on eight of 10 possessions by both teams.
The win was the first as a head coach for Mike Martz, who was St. Louis' offensive coordinator last season and took over when Dick Vermeil retired after the Rams beat Tennessee in last January's Super Bowl.
This was a shootout from the start.
Denver made it look easy on its first possession, going 59 yards in just six plays to take a 7-0 lead on Griese's 8-yard bootleg. Davis had a 12-yard run on that series and Griese completed passes of 16 and 18 yards to Rod Smith and Duane Carswell.
Hakim tied it with his 86-yard return which he took straight up the field and outran everyone.
Jason Elam's 32-yard field goal 1:18 into the second quarter gave the Broncos a 10-7 lead. But the Rams came back with a nine-play, 89-yard drive capped by Faulk's 5-yard TD run.
Then, after Griese hit Smith on a slant for a 25-yard score, the Rams came right back, going 77 yards on nine plays capped by Warner's 7-yard TD pass to Ricky Proehl and it was 21-17 St. Louis at the half.
Elam's 38-yard field goal on the first series of the third quarter cut the Rams' lead to 21-20.
It was quickly 28-20.
On the second play after the kickoff, Warner threw the ball in the flat to Faulk who dodged two tacklers and took the ball 72 yards to the end zone. But Griese came right back, driving the Broncos 67 yards capped by a 7-yard TD pass to Desmond Clark.
Elam's 35-yarder made it 35-30.
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