By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
Growing up a Steelers fan in Austintown, St. Louis Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins says he wouldn't have minded if Pittsburgh had won Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
"I was a big Steelers fan when I was a kid," said Wilkins who kicked for Austintown Fitch and Youngstown State before joining the NFL in 1994. "It would have been a nice rematch of the  Super Bowl.
"But we really don't care who we play; all we care is that we are in," said the Rams kicker, by phone Wednesday from the team's hotel in New Orleans.
Sunday, the Rams will go for their second Super Bowl championship in three seasons when they play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI in the Louisiana Superdome.
Turnaround: Two years ago, the Rams capped an amazing turnaround when they defeated the Tennessee Titans 23-16 in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
In 1999, the Rams were coming off a 4-12 season. No one expected them to challenge for NFL supremacy.
"Two years ago, we had the nucleus in place with a bunch of good people," Wilkins said of the franchise revival. "I'm not really sure why we weren't winning."
Most agree the turning point began with the emergence of quarterback Kurt Warner and the trade for running back Marshall Faulk.
A key moment: Wilkins says the Rams' breaking a 17-game losing streak to the San Francisco 49ers, his former team, was a big moment.
"After that, our confidence just kept rising," Wilkins said.
This year, St. Louis, under second-year coach Mike Martz, was a Super Bowl favorite from Week 1. They lived up to the high expectations by going 14-2 to win the NFC West Division and earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
"In our two losses this season, we beat ourselves with turnovers," said Wilkins, citing eight and six giveaways in home games against the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Despite an offense led by NFL MVPs Warner (1999 and 2001) and Faulk (2000), Wilkins credits this year's success to the work of new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith and the eight new starters on defense.
"[Cornerback] Aeneas Williams has been the Marshall Faulk of our defense," Wilkins said. "As a kicker, I've been able to just sit back and watch them excel. It's been great."
Led NFL: Wilkins led the NFL in scoring with 127 points by kicking all 58 extra points he tried and making 23 of 29 field goals.
"My stats were better last year, but it was a pretty good year," Wilkins said.
The Canfield resident praised his Patriots counterpart, Adam Vinatieri, for making "the best kick I've ever seen."
Wilkins was referring to the 45-yarder Vinatieri made two weeks ago to send New England's snowstorm game against the Oakland Raiders into overtime.
"A 45-yarder in those conditions with all the pressure on him -- that was amazing," Wilkins said. "He's a great outdoor kicker and he'll be even better Sunday when we are indoors."
Fifth season: Wilkins, who will wrap up his fifth season with St. Louis Sunday, says, "It's a special time for us, playing in two Super Bowls in three years. It may never happen again, so we have to take advantage of it."
Wilkins said having already experienced the hoopla leading up to the NFL's championship game is a big help.
"The last Super Bowl was a blur," recalled Wilkins of the whirlwind week the Rams and Titans spent in icy Atlanta two years ago. "So many of us on this year's team went through that and I think we know how to handle it better this time."
Another reason Wilkins is enjoying this postseason more is better health. Two years ago, his left knee (his plant leg) was aching severely and required postseason surgery.
"Every time I would plant my leg for a kick, a sharp pain would jolt through me," Wilkins said. "I knew it was coming and there was nothing that could be done about it."
Came through: The pain was so bad that then-Rams coach Dick Vermeil considered signing a backup kicker during Super Bowl week. He didn't and Wilkins went on to kick three field goals and two extra points in the win.
Wilkins credited Mahoning Valley doctors, especially Dr. Joseph Stefko, for getting him back in action.
"To be honest with you, if it wasn't for Dr. Stefko, I don't think I would be playing today," said Wilkins of the surgeon who repaired his leg.
"And Dr. Joseph Di Domenico did a tremendous job to get me ready in a short time," said Wilkins of his rehabilitation, explaining that the normal recovery time is 10 months. "We only had six" before NFL training camp opened.
Dr. Di Domenico said the success rate for an athlete to return to previous activity is 50 percent.
Appreciation: Wilkins is showing his appreciation by flying both doctors to New Orleans and providing tickets to Sunday's game.
Last year, Wilkins signed a five-year extension with the Rams. He's not impressed.
"There are no guarantees in NFL -- they could cut me tomorrow," Wilkins speculated. "It's just nice knowing I don't have to worry about negotiating any time soon."
Five years ago, Wilkins' decision to leave the playoff perennial 49ers for the struggling Rams had some puzzled.
No one is questioning his move today.
"I would love to say that I knew this success was going to happen," Wilkins said. "I have been blessed to twice play in Super Bowls."