By Jim Thomas

These are the games players dream about, especially players on a young, victory-starved team like the Rams.

"Coming into this game, not a lot of people gave us a chance to even hang around in this game," running back Steven Jackson said.

Truth be told, why should they?
The Rams had played two unbeaten teams previously at home this season Minnesota and Indianapolis and lost by a combined score of 80-16. Why should Sunday be any different against a New Orleans team on pace to become the highest-scoring squad in NFL history?

Well, it was. On Sunday, the Rams became the first team in league history to play three straight home games against unbeaten teams. They came close to making more history with what would've been a staggering upset.

But Marc Bulger's Hail Mary pass as time expired fell to the turf incomplete. And the Rams fell 28-23 to the still unbeaten Saints (9-0).

"Anybody who was watching this game in the country, I'm sure they couldn't turn away from the television," center Jason Brown said. "It's not one of those games where you can say, 'Oh, the Saints have this,' because we challenged them the entire game.

"That's all you can ask for, coming down to the last two minutes, knowing that you score, and you're in a winnable situation. You can't ask for more."

Well, actually, you could've asked for six more points.

"You want to come out with the win," said Jackson, who with 26 carries for 131 yards topped 100 yards for the third

consecutive game. "You want to be in here jumping and celebrating."

But there was no joy in the home-team locker room at the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams (1-8) actually outgained the Saints' No. 1-ranked offense, 434 yards to 420. Bulger finished with a better passer rating than the great Drew Brees 93.5 to 89.1.

The Rams also won the time of possession by four minutes, and were plus 2 in takeaway-giveaway differential.

So a lot went right for St. Louis. But not in the opening 11 seconds of the second half. Just when it seemed safe to FINALLY say that the long-suffering Rams coverage units had gotten over the hump, Courtney Roby changed all that with a ridiculously easy 97-yard yard kickoff return for a touchdown, snapping a 14-14 tie.

Roby took the kick from Josh Brown, headed quickly up the left sideline and was touched barely by only Brown en route to the end zone.

"That kickoff return, it's just the spark they needed coming out in the second half," said Bulger, who threw for a season-high 298 yards and two touchdowns.

The Rams had not given up a kickoff return longer than 33 yards all season, and ranked a respectable 13th in the league in kickoff coverage entering the game. So what happened?

"I'm not sure (special teams coach) Tom McMahon knows 100 percent," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "I'm sure it's a block here and a gap ... I'd have to see it (on film)."

Try as they might, the Rams never caught up after that play.

"When a game's that close and either team can win it, it comes down to a few plays," Spagnuolo said. "The Saints obviously made 'em, and we needed to make one more and didn't. That's about what it comes down to."

The game did boil down to a few plays, some that the Rams didn't make and some that the Saints did:

A red-zone interception thrown by Bulger on second and 8 from the New Orleans 17 with 6:44 to play in the first quarter. Bulger simply didn't see Saints safety Usama Young, subbing for the injured Darren Sharper, on the pass intended for Keenan Burton.

"It was just a look I didn't see during the week," Bulger said. "I should've probably checked it down. I probably forced it a little bit. Those things will eat at you after a game. ... It's one I wish I had back."

Roby's kickoff return to start the third quarter.

"I have to give credit to my front line," Roby said. "When they cover up guys like that, I just find a seam and try to hit it."

Danny Amendola's dropped pass on third and 1 from the Rams' 41 with 6 minutes to play and St. Louis down 28-17. Amendola was wide open on the play.

"Oh yeah, that was a touchdown," Amendola said. "I just dropped it. That's not acceptable. But Donnie (Avery) did a good job of picking me up and catching that next touchdown."

With 2:44 to play, tight end Daniel Fells couldn't hang on to a perfectly thrown pass from Bulger on a 2-point conversion following that Avery TD. Saints safety Roman Harper popped Fells hard from behind, jarring the ball loose.

If Fells hangs on to the ball, the Rams trail 28-25 and Brown would've been attempting a 50-yard field goal to send the game into overtime instead of the Rams needing the Hail Mary pass.

Amendola actually came fairly close to making a catch on the Hail Mary.

"I think the place would've exploded," Bulger said.

But the play would've been nullified and the game over anyway because left tackle Alex Barron was called for holding.