By Bryan Burwell

Of the Post-Dispatch

"It's probably arrogant, but (the *****' defense is) faster than the Rams'. .. It didn't used to be that way, and now it is. That might sound ****y, but it's a fact."

- Falcons coach Jim Mora, then ***** defensive coordinator, after a 30-10 San Francisco victory November 2, 2003

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ATLANTA - Sometimes it really is about You vs. Him.

Under normal circumstances, most Sunday afternoon NFL conflicts are all about the players. The sight of the quicksilver Michael Vick, the artistic Marshall Faulk or the fluid Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt are more than enough to tickle our fancy.

But every once in a while, there are the rare occasions when the game's normal intrigue can be enriched far beyond the anticipation of the physical confrontations on the field. Sunday inside the Georgia Dome, with the Rams squaring off with the Atlanta Falcons, we are about to get one of those moments.

There is a rich subplot brewing here, thanks to all the possibilities created by the X's and O's duel between those two football mad scientists Mike Martz and Jim Mora Jr. This is one of those games in which the players are mere game pieces in a high-tech chess game between Martz, the Rams' offensive genius, and Mora, the young defensive mastermind in his first year as an NFL head coach.

Wouldn't it be perfect if we could somehow have Martz and Mora standing there in the middle of the Georgia Dome, with nothing separating them but a giant blackboard?

How fascinating would it be to be able to look over their shoulders and eavesdrop on their headsets as they flip through their game notes and charts? How much fun would it be to see them taking turns diagramming all their schemes, each guy taking turns countering the other's last move with their elaborate football hieroglyphics?

The 42-year-old Mora, the third-youngest head coach in the league, might be too young to know any better so he seems to embrace the idea of the game within a game.

"It is the ultimate challenge and it's one of the reasons I like playing them so much," said Mora, who spent the last seven years with the San Francisco *****, the last five as their defensive coordinator. "This will be the 15th time I have played them in the last seven years and every one has been a great challenge. They have, No. 1, great talent at all positions. No. 2, a great scheme. I've always had so much respect for Mike Martz and the way he calls a game, in terms of staying aggressive. .. (He's) always going for it. The mentality of the team is to go for it, 'Let's just go, no matter what, just go.' That's why they are able to go in a game like (last week's 17-10 victory over Arizona) and survive three turnovers. Most teams couldn't do that. ... It really presents the ultimate challenge to you as a defensive coach."

They have been matching football wits and schemes for years in all those great Rams vs. Niners clashes in the NFC West, and now the coaching rivalry is renewed with Mora in his first year as an NFL head coach. Last year, Mora got a little full of himself when the Niners beat the Rams 30-10 in a midseason game in San Francisco.

Afterward, perhaps in a bit of youthful exuberance, Mora crowed a bit about how well his defense had played, bragging that his players were faster than those of the Rams, while overlooking Marshall Faulk's absence from the contest. He also overlooked the fact that in his five years as the Niners' defensive boss, Martz's Rams had beaten them eight out of 10 games, and that the Rams averaged nearly 32 points a game in those victories.

When someone mentioned his notorious quote to Mora on Wednesday, he just started laughing.

"Oh man, don't bring that one up," he said. "I saw that (quote) in the paper this morning and I said, 'Ah, I know (the media is) going to ask me about that one.' I don't think they need that quote out of me to get motivated."

When the Mora quote was brought up to Martz last week, he immediately downplayed everything. Martz would like you to believe that he hasn't given even the slightest thought to Mora's in-your-face trash talking from last year. He barely smiled when the question was asked about the battle of X's and O's with Mora. In fact, he almost had a grim, business-as-usual expression when the question was raised.

"I think there is a lot less of that than you realize," Mr. Serious said. "It's more guys just playing, the type of people that changes each year that you have on the roster, both sides of the ball. That changes what you are able to do, whether to run it or throw it, whatever it is, blitz or play man, those types of things. Each year on your roster, you make that sort of adjustment.

"It's more about them than it is about you."

Yeah, OK. But how many of us actually believe that?

Part of what makes these guys tick is a similar athletic arrogance that makes them both confident enough to believe that their X's are always better than your O's - and the boldness to be unafraid to let you know it, too.

So I'm not buying into that humble stuff Martz was trying to peddle all week long. I know he's been locked in his office all week like the prideful mad scientist that he is, trying to concoct just the right game plan that will allow him to leave a large footprint all over his brash young rival's .. uhhh ... ego.

I can hardly wait for somebody's victory speech after the game.

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