CLEVELAND The past has finally caught up to the St. Louis Rams. After a one-year absence, they're back in the NFC playoffs.
Aeneas Williams had two interceptions the first for a 46-yard touchdown in a 24-second span of the first half and the Rams clinched a postseason berth, holding on for a 26-20 win Monday night over the Cleveland Browns.
Williams' two picks enabled the Rams (10-3) to score 14 points in a 42-second span at the end of the first half, giving St. Louis a 23-7 lead.
''All I can say is, he's Aeneas,'' Rams coach Mike Martz said. ''He sets the standard for all of us. He makes the plays in clutch situations.''
Jeff Wilkins kicked four field goals 26, 28, 29 and 37 yards for the Rams, who won their fifth straight game and advanced to the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
''This is just one step,'' Rams receiver Dane Looker said. ''We're excited but not overly excited.''
The Rams, who have a two-game lead over Seattle in the NFC West, had to withstand a valiant comeback by the Browns (4-9), who were making their first regular-season appearance on ''Monday Night Football'' since 1995.
Quarterback Tim Couch rallied Cleveland, but was stripped of the ball by Rams defensive end Brian Young on fourth down with 1:51 left, and St. Louis ran out the clock.
Marshall Faulk ran for more than 100 yards for the fourth straight game, picking up 102 yards on 24 carries as the Rams won for the ninth time in 10 games.
St. Louis went just 7-9 last season, and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1998. They're glad to be going again.
''It's sweet to get back to the playoffs,'' Williams said. ''We've kind of been under the radar most of the season, which is OK. But the coaches have always talked about what is possible.''
Couch went 6-for-9 for 98 yards and threw a 28-yard TD pass to Quincy Morgan after replacing Kelly Holcomb, whose two interceptions just before halftime doomed the Browns.
''To give up 14 points like that is unforgivable,'' said Holcomb, whose first shot at being a starting quarterback has not gone well. ''It's all on me. You can't make mistakes like that. They got 14 points off me.''
Holcomb, whose 2-yard TD pass in the first quarter gave Cleveland a 7-3 lead, was benched with 17 seconds left in the first half.
Following the game, Browns coach Butch Davis refused to answer questions about his quarterback situation.
The Browns, who have been ravaged by injuries all season, also lost defensive end Courtney Brown (arm) and running back James Jackson (knee) for the entire second half.
Also, Browns kicker Phil Dawson broke his left arm and guard Chad Beasley broke his leg.
But Cleveland didn't quit, and twice had the ball down 26-20 in the final minutes. Couch, though, couldn't bring the Browns all the way back and they dropped their fourth straight. Young's strip sealed it for St. Louis' underappreciated defense, which recorded five sacks and forced four turnovers.
The Rams' offense failed to get into the end zone in the first half, relying on three field goals by Wilkins to take a 9-7 lead before Williams bailed St. Louis out.
The 35-year-old cornerback stepped in front of a Holcomb pass intended for Quincy Morgan and took it back for his ninth career interception return for a TD and his 12th return for a score one shy of the career record for defensive TDs held by Oakland's Rod Woodson.
Two plays later, Williams again picked off Holcomb, bringing it back to the Browns' 20.
Marc Bulger then hit Isaac Bruce with a 16-yard scoring pass as the Rams scored 14 points in a span of 42 seconds to blow it open, forcing Browns coach Butch Davis to replace Holcomb with Couch for the final 17 seconds of the half.
Bulger finished 22-of-36 for 223 yards. Wilkins' kicks of 28, 26 and 29 yards came after the Rams' offense failed to get into the end zone despite running 11 plays inside Cleveland's 20.
Wilkins' third field goal gave the Rams a 9-7 lead with 1:52 left in the half.
Notes: Since moving from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995, the Rams are now 30-0 when a player rushed for 100 yards or more. Faulk has 23 of them. ... Before the game, a couple was married in the rowdy Dawg Pound bleacher section. ... The Browns wore their brown jerseys with orange pants for the first time since Dec. 18, 1983, when they beat Pittsburgh. ... Wearing a throwback Jim Brown jersey, Cavaliers rookie LeBron James was interviewed by ABC TV's Al Michaels at halftime. ... Rams LB Robert Thomas strained his groin in the first quarter and didn't come back.
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