By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
09/26/2006

Who could have imagined a circumstance like this?

We're in St. Louis in the early days of autumn, and the Cardinals are lurching towards the finish line of their once-promising baseball season. They're staggering through the final week of the regular season, with their flaws exposed like so many raw nerves. It is a grim September song that has every sports-loving freak in the vicinity in a state of panic.

And who could have imagined this? What if the uncomfortable demise of baseball royalty must share equal billing with a supposedly rebuilding football team as the best athletic drama in town?

Is it possible that as much as it torments your soul to watch the Redbirds reel into the depths of what could be an unimaginable collapse, the best possible antidote is watching the surprising Rams elevate themselves from rebuilding to reborn?

I know it's early, way too early to be making any definitive proclamations about a season barely three weeks old, but look at what is happening. The Rams are 2-1, which no one expected. They have their next two games against the winless Detroit Lions and the ineffective Green Bay Packers (1-2), before an October 15 showdown at home against the suddenly vulnerable NFC champion Seattle Seahawks.

The Seahawks (3-0) are behaving like the best team in the NFC right now, but must travel to Chicago this weekend to face the unbeaten Bears without league MVP Shaun Alexander, who is out indefinitely with a broken bone in his foot.

It is not inconceivable that the Rams could go into that game with a 4-1 record, and the Seahawks could come out of Chicago with their first loss. It is not inconceivable that the Rams and Seahawks could be squaring off on national television on October 15 with first place in the NFC West on the table.

Sports are funny like this. You rarely see the train wreck coming. But you also are usually unprepared for the joyride to arrive, too. So maybe by some wonderful twist of fate, the best remedy for enduring the agony of the Cardinals' slide is to witness the Rams' shocking ascent.

It's quite a story, too. So there's Mike Martz on the cover of today's sports section, threatening to add a little soap opera spice to the proceedings. Yet lost in the swirl of Mad Mike's homecoming is a far more significant bit of information that has almost gone unnoticed:

After spending the better part of the late summer and early fall searching for just that perfect angle to witness the full beauty of Scott Linehan's offense, you no longer have to tilt your head as if gazing at a curious piece of modern art.

Sunday's 16-14 victory over the Arizona Cardinals was not exactly a critical success for those of you still waiting for the scoreboard to light up like a pinball machine. But for the first time this season, the offense had a rhythm to it that allowed us to imagine the possibilities of what might occur when things to come all together. "I think we're warming up," Linehan said Monday. "I think you can see that there was a better feel offensively in this game than the first couple. We were much more decisive."

What I see now is a team that is tantalizingly close to putting together a full show of offensive force. Despite the glitches near the endzone, the Rams 364 yards of total offense was their best performance of the season. We already knew they can run the ball (entering the Monday night game, Steven Jackson led the NFC in rushing). Now we see how this offense looks when Marc Bulger is comfortable and in control of the passing game.

And wouldn't it be something if that scoring explosion happened this weekend, with Linehan standing across the field from the man who made offense famous in St. Louis, Mad Mike Martz?

Linehan's too measured a man to let you know how much this game matters to him personally. But you get the sense that this game shouldn't begin with a coin flip. It should have the two offensive minds standing at midfield with game plans and chalk sticks on their hips.