By Bryan Burwell
Of the Post-Dispatch
Thursday, Jan. 13 2005

By now, most of the Rams players have whirled and clicked their way through the
footage of that 34-17 debacle in the Georgia Dome last September so often that
their eyes are red and bleary. Revisiting that Game 2 loss to the Atlanta
Falcons was a horror film of monumental proportions. They saw all that poor
tackling. They saw all that poor blocking. They saw all those drive-killing,
self-destructive mental errors.

Maybe a few weeks ago, this was just the sort of disaster film that you wanted
to keep away from this staggering, unsure bunch.

But now that the Rams have taken a good, hard look at that game tape in
preparation for Saturday night's prime-time rematch with the Falcons in the NFC
semifinals, it's a film study that has opened their eyes in ways you could
never imagine.

Now that mess in the Georgia Dome looks a lot more like a "before" photo for
these decidedly improved and confident Rams. That team was a mistake-prone
bunch that had no idea who they were or where they were going. That team was
full of mystery and doubt.
"Man, it doesn't look anything like us now," Leonard Little said earlier this
week. The Rams' star defensive end shook his head slowly and laughed softly
when recalling how bad things looked back then.

"A lot has changed since that game," Little said with a positive smile.

Four months later - and riding on the emotional high of a three-game winning
streak at just the right time - this is a team full of self-assurance.

Yes, these Rams have a different strut about themselves now, and with good
reason. They will walk into the Georgia Dome with absolutely no pressure on
them. They are the underdogs. They are the road team. They are the team we all
left for dead three weeks ago. They are the team that history said couldn't
possibly be here.

This is not the way we're used to seeing them storm into the postseason. The
Rams were always one of the most highly decorated teams in the postseason, full
of high-profile Pro Bowlers and a gaudy won-loss record that caught everyone's
attention.

But things are just a bit different now. This is the team everyone forgot - or
at least wanted to forget. So now they are here in the conference semifinals
against the NFC's No. 2 seed. They are here against the game's most exciting
player, "The Michael Vick Experience." They are here inside another rowdy,
hostile stadium full of screaming folks who want to make the Rams' lives
miserable.

Yet the more you listen to and observe the Rams, you can't get over the feeling
that they are the most free-spirited group of underdogs you've ever seen. And
you know what, how can you blame them?

What do they have to lose?

They are so confident now that looking at that bad game film against Atlanta
seems to provide them with more emotional fuel. In that first game back in
September, the Rams spent most of the game bludgeoning themselves with
self-inflicted wounds. They committed 10 penalties for 75 yards. They lost a
fumble. They gave up an interception. They did everything bad teams do when
they lose to good teams.

Let's go to the fourth quarter of that loss in September and recall a
three-play blur that decided the game. The Rams trailed 24-17 when rookie
Steven Jackson received a kickoff in the end zone for a touchback but
inexplicably decided to throw the ball into the face of an oncoming defender.

Penalty against the Rams for taunting.

If not for one silly, unthinking moment by a frustrated rookie return man, two
plays later Bulger is being sacked on the 10-yard line, not in the end zone,
and no one's talking about Atlanta's Brady Smith as the hero of the game. But
two plays later, we were talking about Smith taking the ball from Bulger for a
Falcons touchdown that effectively crushed any hope of a Rams comeback.

Now let's flash back to last week's road victory against Seattle. The Rams
committed just four penalties for 30 yards and gave up only one turnover. In
the game-winning drive, there were no penalties called against St. Louis. In
fact, in the entire second half, the Rams were penalty-free and turnover-free.

This might be one of the biggest overlooked differences between the Rams team
that walked into the Georgia Dome nearly four months ago and the one that will
face the Falcons on Saturday evening.

When you play error-free and with so much confidence, anything is possible. Can
the Rams go to Atlanta and win? I'm starting to believe they can, and so are
they.

"Back in Game 2, we thought we could win," guard Tom Nutten said after practice
earlier this week. "And I mean thought, as in, 'Well, uh, you know,
yeah, sure . . . I think we can win.' But now we look around and we
know it. It's confidence built on success. It's confidence built on how well
we're playing together now. Now we don't think we can win. We know we can win."