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    Burwell: rare Buzz At Rams Park

    Burwell: Rare buzz at Rams Park

    Friday, December 17, 2010

    There was a distinct buzz under the big roof at Rams Park's indoor practice facility Thursday, an uncommon feeling that used to be so commonplace in Earth City. It was the buzz of the Big Game. It was that unmistakeable sense that the Rams were preparing to play a game with "must win" connotations.

    It's been such a long time since there's been a "big game, must win" atmosphere this late in the season around here. Trying to actually pinpoint exactly when that was is kind of hard, since there are only two eyewitnesses still on the roster (Steven Jackson and Chris Massey) who can verify that such a moment ever happened.

    But with less than 72 hours to go before Sunday's showdown in the Dome against the cross-state visitors from Kansas City, Chiefs vs. Rams is taking on that rare big-game buzz, mainly because the Rams know they need to keep on winning to keep alive their very real playoff hopes.

    "I think everyone gets it," Jackson said after practice. "Basically, if you win, you put yourself in a great position of being in the postseason. Our goal is to be the NFC West champs. All season long we've been talking about these things. To have three games remaining and have that as a possibility, I think guys realize that it's crunch time and we have to play extra hard and we have to play good football."

    It is starting to feel like a big game now. The governor is coming to practice this morning. Seriously, Missouri's First Fan as knowledgeable and passionate a sports fan as any public servant I've ever known is hanging out with the Rams today (no word on when or if he will spend equal time with the lesser half on the other side of Interstate 70).

    Oh, and let's not forget the other sign of full-blown "big game" silliness. Chiefs coach Todd Haley is whining about whether or not the Rams will be cranking up the heat in the dome on Sunday to tropical temperatures.

    Uh-huh, seriously. Mind games on aisle 11.

    I suggest as a direct response to this foolishness, the Rams replace the singing of the national anthem with "America the Beautiful" just so all those annoying visitors from the west can't shout "CHIEFS!" at the end of the anthem's final verse ("and the home of the ...").

    But hey, that's just me thinking out loud.

    But the surest sign that this has now officially been upgraded to "Big Game, Must Win" status was the mere sight of Steve Spagnuolo roaming the indoor practice facility on Thursday, bouncing in and out of huddles, dashing into the thick of defensive drills, stalking every square inch of the place with the intensity of a man possessed with getting every ... single ... solitary ... detail ... just ... right.

    With his sleeves rolled up, his ever-present practice notes always within reach, Spags was jumping around and intently and intensely attending to business. Sometimes head coaches play the role of detached CEO. This was not one of those times. Spags was in full hands-on mode. He was over there with the defensive backs in breakout drills, then with the linebackers as they went over all sorts of finer points. He was pointing and clapping, he was yelling and whispering. He was coaching them all up with the enthusiasm of an unpaid assistant looking for his first big break.

    The message around here coming directly from the top of the food chain and reaching all the way down to the last man on the roster is, according to Spagnuolo, really quite simple.

    "They have to understand we're not promised anything," he said. "The veterans are doing a great job of pulling them up and making them understand what a rare opportunity we have in front of us. There are no guarantees we'll have this chance again. None at all. I was reminded of this awhile ago when I was with Philadelphia, and it was our first year going to the playoffs and one of our coaches, Tommy Brasher, had been in the business for over 25 years and this was his first time ever in the playoffs."

    In truth, the Rams don't have to win Sunday to keep their playoff hopes alive. There are enough wild and crazy permutations in the NFC West where every team is still under .500 that the Rams could lose to the Chiefs and still finish 8-8 and win the division.

    But the Rams want to be better than that. They need to crave the importance of finishing strong, of bearing down and making something special of this already improbable season. There isn't a team remaining on their schedule that they can't beat. Just the same, if they're not careful, there isn't a team remaining in their path that they can't lose to either.

    Jackson insists his teammates understand this. "It's not so much what I see," he said. "I can just tell that the focus is there. Practice is still ... we've always practiced good. That's the one thing I can say about this team. We always go out and have fast practice, guys trying to execute the details or certain things that they need to get done. But I think the team is at a state of mind where we feel confident enough that these next three games, we can compete in. That's what you want to see. You don't want to see guys walking around afraid to make a mistake or allowing the pressure to kind of put them in a bad spot. Hopefully all the things we're doing today, what we will do all week, will carry on all December."

    Here's what I hope carries on all the way through December. They need to want to win all three games, finish 9-7 and prove to the rest of the football world that is intent on mocking the sorry state of the NFC West that not everyone in this division is incapable of creeping into the postseason without the credibility of a winning record.

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