Burwell: Game vs. ***** will provide answers for Rams fans

BY Bryan Burwell
Friday, December 24, 2010 12:15 am

Now that Steve Spagnuolo absolutely, positively has exactly what he wants — the fate of his football team compressed into one all-encompassing, win-or-go-home contest — it's time we get what we want, too: the solution to the season-long riddle of what these 2010 St. Louis Rams are truly made of.

We've gnashed our teeth over it endlessly, debating to no avail what to make of this surprising football team that seems to fluctuate so madly from compelling to confusing and fascinating to frustrating all season long. We've wondered whether we should be celebrating their sudden rise or worrying ourselves sick over their glaring weaknesses. But now, just in time for Christmas, we'll all get some answers, won't we?

The only thing that matters is can they show up on Sunday and win a game they absolutely, positively must win?

This is the biggest opportunity in nearly a decade for this franchise, and arguably the biggest moment in the professional lives of most of the men in that Rams locker room, too. Some people wonder if the green-but-growing Rams may have grown up a bit too fast, maybe even gotten an accelerated boost toward postseason exposure by virtue of being in the weakest division in pro football.

A lot of NFL wise guys have grumbled that even in the midst of this marked improvement from last year's 1-15 debacle, it's still hard to tell what to make of these 6-8 Rams because of their deceptive schedule.

We'll save that debate for another day, because none of that really matters right now. Here's what does. If the Rams can prove that they have the competitive heart and soul to beat the San Francisco ***** this Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, they will mute all those confused voices.

If they lose, we will remember that these really are the early stages of a daunting rebuilding process. Or more precisely, a lot of people who can't measure up to the new regime's ultimate goal — creating a legitimate championship-caliber team — will be exposed for all to see.

It's really that simple, isn't it?

On Thursday, as he was surrounded by a flock of media after practice, someone asked Steven Jackson whether he was curious to see how his teammates would respond to this high-pressure moment or confident of how they would respond.

A slight grin creased his face as the big running back answered the question with a clever and insightful response.

"I think yes and yes," Jackson said. "I want to see how the team responds. I'm looking forward to seeing how many gamers do we have on this team? Who shows up on game day? And how do I think we'll respond? I think we're going to respond in a strong way."

Ladies and gentlemen, you are listening to a fired-up team captain skillfully sending a rather strong message to a locker room full of teammates. This journey the Rams are about to embark on is not for faint hearts, quivering knees or weak stomachs. In recent weeks as the stakes have gotten bigger and the pressure has been ratcheted up slowly, but surely, not everyone in that Rams locker room has handled the increased anxiety of the playoff hunt as well as needed.

There have been too many miscues and lapses in concentration over the course of the last month against the better teams in the league (Falcons, Saints and Chiefs). The Rams weren't necessarily better than any of those teams, but they were surely not grossly outclassed. Yet when they were presented with sufficient opportunities to steal at least one or two of those contests, they couldn't do it.

But now there are only two games remaining, and no excuses to fall back on. If you asked me six months ago if I'd be content with the Rams winning six games in 2010, I would have said yes. But a lot has changed in those six months. Unforeseen opportunity has presented itself, and even with all of their flaws in Year Two of this franchise reconstruction, this Rams team is more than adequate to handle this moment.

No one is asking them to make an impossible two-game run through the '85 Bears or the '08 Patriots. These are the underachieving Niners and the collapsing Seahawks, and they are both as beatable as a dusty rug on a backyard clothes line.

With all of its warts and glaring flaws, this Rams team has a chance to do something no one thought possible six months ago, and an 8-8 record secures everything for them. But before they can get to eight victories, they have to get to seven, and that starts Sunday against San Francisco.

Beat the Niners and you're one improbable Sunday away from a division title. Beat the Niners and you are in complete control of your fate. Everything that you could possibly want is in your favor, including a big home crowd, a battered opponent that is an obviously flawed but competitive equal. The motivation surely ought to be there to hold their attention. For all intents and purposes, this has to be seen as the biggest game of their young football lives, and if it isn't, maybe the folks upstairs who do all the talent evaluation ought to take notice of that.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that the Rams are still in the rebuilding process because of these crazy circumstances that put a 6-8 team in the thick of a playoff hunt. But part of the rebuilding process is to discover answers about not just the X's and O's, but those competitive hearts and souls.

It's time to find out who finds the heat of the moment soothing and who wilts in the intense glare of the playoff chase.

"We have a tough two-game stretch," Jackson said. "One away, one at home, against division rivals. Each poses a very strong threat against us. So it's a good measuring stick for us, but as the weeks go on and we're able to get into the playoffs, it's going to get tougher, so I'm interested in seeing how the guys respond."