Believe it or not: Rams in a big game

BY JIM THOMAS
Friday, November 12, 2010

At 2-2, the Rams headed north to Ford Field and suffered a humiliating 44-6 defeat in Detroit.

At 3-3, the Rams headed south to Raymond James Stadium and squandered a 17-3 lead en route to a last-second 18-17 setback to Tampa Bay.

Here we go again.

At 4-4, the Rams head west to Candlestick Park to take on the San Francisco *****. For the third time this season the Rams will try climb above the .500 mark, a place they haven't been at any point in a season since midway through the 2006 campaign.

Only this time, the stakes are higher because it's mid November and the Rams are leading the NFC West standings. A victory over San Francisco keeps the Rams in first place and just about puts a dagger into the ***** (2-6) who were consensus preseason favorites to win the West. A loss keeps the Rams on their nearly-season long treadmill of winning at home and losing on the road.

"Division rival, a defense that I highly respect," running back Steven Jackson said of the *****. "I think they go about business the right way. It's one of those measuring sticks for us to see where we're at in our conference and our division. It's going to be a meaningful game. A lot of people who look at it from a point of view of (won-loss) records don't really appreciate the intensity that this game's going to bring Sunday."

So yes, for the first time in a long time, the St. Louis Rams are playing in a big game. How long has it been? Consider Jackson's answer when asked about teaching the younger players how to win big games.

"Well, it's something that I'm looking forward to learning," Jackson said. "I'm being honest right now."

In seven NFL seasons, Jackson has yet to play on a team that finished the season with a winning record. And he has been part of only one playoff squad: the 2004 Rams squeaked in at 8-8 with a wild-card berth in Jackson's rookie season.

"To have a big game, to learn how to win as the stakes get higher, as the season goes by, it's going to be fun," Jackson said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge. Hopefully we can keep ourselves in this position but everything goes back to what we've always been taught around here _ one week at a time, one game at a time. But if you continue to win, the stakes get bigger."

Nine victories probably wins the NFC West this season, maybe eight. But you can't get to eight or nine until you first reach five. And that's the task at hand in Sunday's 3:15 p.m. (St. Louis time) kickoff.

The Rams haven't won a road game in more than a calendar year, 378 days to be exact since winning 17-10 at Detroit on Nov. 1, 2009. As the road losses accumulate this season, the Rams have all but run out of words to describe why it's happening.

"Well, we've struggled," Jackson said. "I don't think it's one thing. We've struggled because...(pause)...we've struggled, I guess. But we're going to change that, we're going to turn it around. We have eight games left in the season that we can (find) the remedy for it."

Actually, only five of those eight are road games. No matter, beating San Francisco won't be an easy task. The ***** dominated the Rams last season, winning 35-0 in San Francisco and 28-6 in St. Louis.

In the 28-6 game, the Rams managed a meager 109 yards of total offense.

In the 35-0 game (at Candlestick), the ***** scored three touchdowns on takeaways: one on an interception return, one on a fumble return, and one on a return of a muffed Rams punt.

That's how the ***** roll at home. Dating back to coach Mike Singletary's first victory after replacing Mike Nolan midway through the 2008 season, the ***** have 36 takeaways in 15 home games. Only two other teams have more takeaways at home over that span.

It figures to be tough to score on the *****, then again, the Rams have had to scrap for points much of the season with their injury-depleted wide receiver corps and Jackson's groin and finger injuries. The groin muscle has been healed for a while, but Jackson's fractured finger won't be right for several weeks.

The bye week may have helped refresh bumps and bruises for many players, but a few days off doesn't do much for a broken bone.

"No, not for a broken finger," he said.

Despite their 2-6 record, the ***** have one of the better front sevens in the league. On the other side of the ball, the ***** like to play it conservative, leaning on Frank Gore in the running game.

This game could come down to old-school football. Defending the run, and running the football. A test of will as much as a battle of Xs and Os. Which shouldn't be surprising considering the defensive-oriented mindset of head coaches Singletary and Steve Spagnuolo.