By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Tuesday, Oct. 31 2006

After six consecutive games on a tightrope, with one frantic finish after
another, the Rams crashed and burned Sunday in San Diego. After falling behind
14-0 in the first quarter, they could never make it a contest. Although it
wasn't a blowout, Sunday's 38-24 loss wasn't a close game, either.

Coach Scott Linehan is as curious as the next guy to see how his team responds.

"Yeah, I am," Linehan said. "It's the first game this year that didn't come
down to the last drive or the last play. Are we going to handle it maturely,
and approach this week just like the others? Still keep our same competitive
fire and competitive spirit, and not let it affect us?

"Because sometimes, when you get knocked on your butt, you have to just dust
yourself off and get up."

As disappointing as Sunday's loss may have been for the Rams, there's still
plenty to "get up" for as the season hits the midway point. In terms of the NFC
West race, the Rams lost nothing Sunday because Seattle also lost (to Kansas
City). So the teams remain tied for first in the West, just as they were a week
ago. Only now, their records are 4-3 instead of 4-2.

"I don't know if it's consolation," Linehan said. "But it's reality. You've got
to keep a real sense of reality in pro football. ... Certainly we didn't have a
good day, but we're still in good position within our division."

Linehan made reference to that in his postgame comments to the team Sunday in
the visitors' locker room at Qualcomm Stadium.

"It's really hard to explain that to young players who maybe played for a major
college where if you lose a game in the middle of the season you're out of
the BCS hunt or whatever," Linehan said. "That's really not how it works (in
the NFL). You don't want to accumulate too many (losses), but if you lose a
game, you certainly are looking at how things are going in your division and
where you sit.

"Essentially, we didn't really lose our position that we started the day in. If
you can handle that and then respond correctly, which is the critical part of
that, it really works out in our favor that (Sunday) nobody in our division was
successful."

Regardless of the won-loss record, you're in the playoffs if you win your
division. And once you're in the playoffs, all things are possible. There's no
greater example of that than the Rams' baseball neighbors the Cardinals who
won the World Series despite finishing the regular season just five games over
.500.

Granted, 4-3 is far from a record-setting pace. And yes, the NFC West hardly
looks like a power division. The West went 0-4 Sunday and was outscored 145-76.
But first place is still first place.

"I'm sure the talk about our division being weak has started again,"
quarterback Marc Bulger said. "We'd rather be tied for first if we were 5-2 or
6-1. But we'll take it, knowing that in this little stretch here, we've got to
find a way to win at least one or two of these road games."

Meaning, at Seattle Nov. 12 and at Carolina Nov. 19. But first things first.
The Rams must hold serve Sunday at home against the Kansas City Chiefs, who are
coming off a pair of strong offensive performances. Kansas City presents
challenges very similar to those presented by San Diego.

"We're going to face a great back this week, too," defensive end Leonard Little
said. "And they're going to do the same thing."

Namely, try to run right at the Rams with a power running game headed by Larry
Johnson. Take the comparison a step farther because like the Chargers, the
Chiefs also feature an all-world tight end (Tony Gonzalez).

"So we're going to see the same thing this week," Little said. "It's going to
be up to us to try to stop 'em."

There's no time like the present, because November begins the separation
process in the NFL, when the contenders rise to the challenge and the
pretenders fall to the wayside.

"As the season goes on, every win means a lot," Little said. "We've got to
start winning games, because November and December are the most important games
if you want to make the playoffs."

Other than unbeaten Chicago (7-0), which is playing at a different level from
everyone else, the NFC is a hodgepodge. Nine of the other 15 teams in the
conference have records of either 5-2, 4-3 or 4-4.

To make a playoff run, the Rams must re-charge their defense and find an elixir
for their long-dormant kickoff return game.

After a strong start, coordinator Jim Haslett's defense has yielded 30 or more
points in three of the past four games. Meanwhile, the Rams can't seem to get
the ball much beyond the 20 on kickoff returns. Field position, or lack
thereof, is becoming more of a problem as the season progresses.

If those problems don't start getting fixed, the Rams won't be tied for first
much longer.