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The hare or turtle or the Rams?

They lie there like a green snake among tall green grass, almost undetectable but dangerous if you're not paying attention to where you're going.

They are camouflaged by their low seeding, made to appear harmless until you get close, then it's too late.

As we venture into these NFL playoffs today, every NFC team ought to remember this along the way to Tampa for Super Bowl XXXV:

Look out below.

That's where the Rams lurk, at the bottom of the playoff heap, saddled with a sixth and final seeding that's about as undeserved as Bush's presidential title.

Trust me, the Rams are not lucky to be here. They didn't get in until the last minute, but don't think that says something about whether they actually belong here.

You can take this team lightly if you want, but you're going to pay dearly. Fact is, until someone takes their crown, they are still the reigning Super Bowl champions.

I'll concede that the Giants probably are the best team in the NFC. They are certainly the most balanced, with running back Tiki Barber and a re-emerging quarterback in Kerry Collins, plus the league's fifth-ranked defense.

The Bucs are probably the hottest bunch. They won seven of nine, and would have won eight of nine had kicker Martin Gramatica made that 40-yarder in the closing seconds Sunday against Green Bay.

If they can get past Philadelphia on Sunday and get some of their defensive stars healthy, they might never be stopped.

But when the Rams have everything clicking, nobody will run with these guys. And from the looks of things, they are running like a Swiss watch.

They waxed the Vikings, barely lost to the Bucs and swamped the Saints, who probably will get another dunking today in their rematch at the Superdome.

The only reason the Rams aren't everyone's favorite to return to the Super Bowl is injuries, namely to quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk, who have recovered nicely.

Okay, maybe their defense has had more holes than Augusta National this season. But when Warner and Faulk went down, folks couldn't get off the bandwagon fast enough. After all, Warner is only the best quarterback in the league, and Faulk was just voted the MVP.

Think about it. How bad would San Diego be if it lost Ryan Leaf and Terrell Fletcher to injuries? Okay, so it would still be awful, but you get the point.

"I think the confidence and focus is back," Rams coach Mike Martz said.

Warner looks to be in synch again. He's throwing lasers, making smart reads and hitting his receivers in stride, allowing their speed to turn short gains into back-breakers just like last season.

Faulk has been sensational lately. He has 11 touchdowns in his past three games and is coming off perhaps the best game of his career, a 220-yard rushing effort against _ guess who? _ the Saints.

That has the Rams offense back to its breakneck pace, delivering a thrill-a-minute wherever it goes. In fact, in some ways, this Rams offense might be even more ferocious than last season's.

"I don't know how you stop them other than giving them food poisoning or slashing the tires on the team bus," ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said.

It could just be me, but everything seems to be falling into place for the Rams. Even though they have to play every playoff game on the road, the Rams are fortunate that two of the other four teams play on turf, which accents the Rams' extraordinary team speed.

I mean, if things were working against them, the Rams would be playing in the cold of Philadelphia today or on the natural grass at Raymond James Stadium.

No, what do the Rams get? A trip to the always comfy confines of the Superdome. If they advance, they play the Giants, a team they've beaten this season. After that, they could be headed inside Minnesota's Metrodome.

Those are the kind of breaks you need in the post-season. You need your team to get hot late. You need your stars to get healthy in the nick of time. You need the schedule to work in your favor.

And if you can sucker a few teams into looking past you, all the better.