By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
18/09/2007

In the NFL's current confusing state, it's really difficult to tell what is real and what's imagined. Are we really supposed to believe that the New Orleans Saints — everyone's favorite feel-good story a year ago — have descended overnight back to the dregs of the pro football heap? Are we genuinely supposed to accept the concept that some NFL vagabond named Derek Anderson just outgunned a Pro Bowl blue blood Carson Palmer, and the lowly Cleveland Browns could hang 51 points on the Cincinnati Bengals? Are the 2-0 records of the surprising Houston Texans, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers just as golden as the 2-0 records of the exalted New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts?

After two weeks in this pro football season, trying to separate loose facts from hard reality is quite a chore. All that we know for sure is that there are two super teams (the Patriots and Colts), a couple of really inferior ones, and this 28-team clump of mediocrity in the middle.

That's why even in spite of their 0-2 record, the winless St. Louis Rams still have a chance to climb out of this self-destructive hole. They are among that indistinguishable mess in the middle of the NFL heap, where everyone is pushing and shoving, elbowing and clawing on a daily basis to separate from the pack. Sometimes, all that separates teams from a 10-6 trip to the playoffs and a 6-10 trip to the early picks of the NFL draft are a few fickle failures or capricious successes on Sundays.

Look at the NFC West standings and tell me what really separates the unbeaten ***** from the winless Rams, or the 1-1 Cardinals from the 1-1 Seahawks? Four points, really. On Sunday, the Niners edged the Rams by one point and Arizona sneaked past Seattle on a last-second field goal. If you think for a moment that anyone in the NFC West is that much better than the rest of the pack, you'd be fooling yourself. Chances are these four teams will spend the rest of the season beating each other up and ultimately the division winner will stagger into the postseason with a 9-7 or 8-8 record.

That's why Rams coach Scott Linehan remains so optimistic despite his team's 0-2 start, because he has to know that life in the NFL for teams like his can change in the blink of an eye.

"It's the second game of the season and there are 14 games left," Linehan said Monday afternoon. "I'm encouraged by how we played defensively. Our special teams will come back around, and if we take care of the ball offensively and start getting that baby in the end zone, we can start our roll in Week 3. Unfortunately (the roll has to start) in Week 3 because we're two down. ... As far as being in a hole, yeah, we're in a little hole. We put a little more pressure on ourselves than we wanted to, but sometimes that's good."

Sometimes, the hole is just what a team needs to start digging. A week ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this week's Rams opposition, found themselves deep in a gully when they lost 20-6 to Seattle. But this week, the Bucs looked revived with a 31-14 shellacking of New Orleans. A week ago, the Browns looked lifeless in a 34-7 loss at home to Pittsburgh, but went on the road to Cincy two days ago and won a 51-45 shootout with the Bengals.

That is typical of fragile life for the Average Joes in the NFL. It's a day-to-day, week-to-week league for most teams, and sometimes the difference between being dead or alive is just as simple as one lucky break. The hope is that Linehan can continue to sell his team on this, and that this week everything will fall into place. Strong defense, well-executed special teams and no turnovers in the red zone.

Late Sunday night, Linehan sat in his office replaying the tape of Jeff Wilkins' missed 56-yard field goal attempt over and over again until he went blurry eyed. "Every time it was two feet short. It was that short, maybe even a foot," he said with a sigh. "It's a game of inches."

For flawed teams like the Rams, they need to make sure that the inches start falling in their favor.