By Jim Thomas

When it comes to Rams football, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett has a self-imposed news blackout. He tries not to read the newspaper, listen to the radio, or watch the TV news.

So what does he watch when the television's on at home?

"We have TiVo, so when I go home, my wife has all the Family Feuds on," Pickett said.

Family Feud? He can get that at Rams Park every day.

"I know," Pickett said, laughing.

Nobody's laughing in the Rams' front office these days. Not team president John Shaw. Not president of football operations Jay Zygmunt. Not ailing head coach Mike Martz, who announced Monday he would sit out the rest of the season because of a bacterial infection of the heart valve known as endocarditis.

If the medical news wasn't bad enough, the feud between Martz and Zygmunt blew wide open when Zygmunt and Shaw prevented Martz from contacting offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild in the coach's box last week against New Orleans. Martz was angry. Shaw responded, in part, by giving Martz a less-than-stellar vote of confidence.

All of which has left many players confused and even bewildered.

Is the organization using Martz's illness to force him out for the rest of the season - and for good?

Some players were upset when Shaw told the Post-Dispatch that he wasn't sure if the team would even finish at .500 this season.

Some wondered why the organization would even consider fining defensive end Leonard Little for missing a game because of the shooting death of his brother.

If that weren't enough, the Rams played before a lot of empty seats and an uninspired crowd (at least early on) in the Edward Jones Dome against New Orleans.

And this Sunday against Jacksonville, they must play once again without Pro Bowlers Marc Bulger, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Little. Bulger (shoulder), Bruce (turf toe) and Holt (knee) are injured. Little is expected to rejoin the team next week.

No doubt, the Rams have a lot going against them; there was a lot of negative energy inside the walls of Rams Park this past week.

But one thing they have going for them is interim head coach Joe Vitt. The players respect him, and are playing hard for him. And if somehow, some way, they can muster a victory over the favored Jaguars, the Rams would enter their bye week with a 4-4 record and renewed hope of saving the season.

The Rams hope to have Bulger, Bruce, Holt and Little all back on the field when they return from the bye with a Nov. 13 game in Seattle. A win in Seattle puts St. Louis back in the race in the NFC West. But it all has to start with a victory Sunday against the Jaguars (4-2).

"Definitely, this is a swing game," Pickett said. "This is a one-game season for us. That's how the coaches are approaching it, and that's how we're approaching it. We need this win. And we've got to do anything to win it."

It would help immensely if the defense picks up where it left off against New Orleans.

"It's important that the defense step up now, with Bulger out," linebacker Chris Claiborne said.

An embarrassing three-game defensive slide, in which the Rams gave up 126 points in losses to the New York Giants, Seattle and Indianapolis, carried over into the Saints game. But after falling behind 14-0 and giving up 145 yards in the opening quarter, the defense finally righted itself.

"It was a test of character," defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy said. "We were down 14-0. The guys fought back. They kept believing, and we turned around and won that game. This week it's the same thing for the most part. I think we're playing a stronger team than we played last weekend. Our hands are going to be full."

According to Pickett, Vitt "flat-out challenged us" prior to the New Orleans game.

"He called players out," Pickett said. "He was all up on the defense, the whole week."

Vitt and defensive coordinator Larry Marmie called out specific players by name during team meetings, and told them what they needed to improve on.

"Coach (Vitt) made us accountable for what we were doing," Pickett said. "He was saying we weren't going to come out flat. And we weren't going to play flat. So we were going to give it our all. And I think that worked. Plus, we had a more aggressive package this week."

More aggressive, as in more blitzing.

"We love the blitzing," Pickett said. "It switches it up, so we're not just sitting targets where the offensive line knows where we're going to be."

The resulting 28-17 win over the Saints, capped by an interception return for a touchdown by safety Mike Furrey, was a much-needed confidence booster.

"We needed a win bad and we got it," quarterback Jamie Martin said.

What can they do for an encore?

"It's huge if we can get back to .500," Martin said. "I guess that's a starting point - start new again. Get our guys back, and hopefully we'll get going."