By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Rookie quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (left) will face a tough test on Sunday when the Rams play at Minnesota. The Vikings' defense promises to "really try to get after him."
On Sunday, the Rams will walk into one of the NFL's noisiest stadiums, to play one of the NFL's hottest teams.
On Sunday, we'll find out how much the Rams really want it. How much do they enjoy playing the game?
"Yeah, we have four games right now where either we can just lay down and get ready for next year," safety Mike Furrey said. "Or for a lot of us guys, we need to step it up ... finish strong here, and see what happens."
Because at 5-7, what do the Rams really have to play for?
"We still have a chance to finish the year with a winning record," linebacker Trev Faulk said. "Mathematically, even though it looks very, very bleak right now, I don't believe that we're out of the playoff picture. So we still have a lot to play for. And I mean that just as a man; just as a competitive person.
"Any time you're out there in a competitive situation, you want to win. So that's what we're playing for right now. We're playing to win, just like it's Week 1 or any other week."
Are there enough guys in the locker room who feel the same way?
"We'll find out," Faulk said. "We'll find out very, very shortly. I believe that there are."
The running game is sputtering. The defense can't stop the run. The secondary can't tackle. The frustration and embarrassment are mounting. These are trying times at Rams Park.
"We're trying so hard to improve so many things about our game," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "And to keep falling short, it's kind of hard.
"We've just got to win. ... When we beat Houston, the feeling was so great. We just want that winning feeling back in the locker room."
There's no time like the present. It's closing in on Christmas, and the injury-plagued Rams have just one victory since Halloween. Rest assured, Minnesota will not be handing out sympathy cards when the captains meet for the pregame coin toss.
After a 2-5 start, the Vikings have won five in a row to thrust themselves back into the playoff picture. They cannot afford to stumble against the fading Rams, and Minnesota coach Mike Tice seems determined to prevent that from happening.
Among other things, Tice has reminded the Vikings that St. Louis has won the past three meetings - the 1999 playoffs, and 2000 and '03 regular seasons - by a combined score of 137-83. St. Louis piled up 1,370 yards of offense in those games, during which Rams quarterbacks completed 81 percent of their passes.
The Vikings appear to be very confident, particularly when it comes to rookie quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick handling the Minnesota defense and the deafening noise that can be part of the Metrodome experience.
"Everybody is licking their chops," Vikings defensive lineman Spencer Johnson told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Definitely, definitely. It's a new situation (for Fitzpatrick). We're going to really try to get after him, especially up front. Get some pressure in his face and hope he makes some mistakes."
Fitzpatrick hasn't made many mistakes so far. He has thrown only two interceptions in 66 passing attempts, a lower interception percentage (3.0) than either Marc Bulger (3.1) or Jamie Martin (5.4) this season. There also was a fumble on a botched handoff from Fitzpatrick to Steven Jackson last week against Washington.
Fitzpatrick has spent a lot of time running for his life in his two NFL games. Between his scrambling, and getting sacked, or getting hit while throwing, Fitzpatrick has been knocked down on 21.6 percent of his called pass plays. That's the third-highest total in the league, according to STATS, Inc., trailing only San Francisco's Alex Smith (28.1 percent), and Jacksonville's David Garrard (26.5).
Minnesota isn't known as a blitzing team.
"But I'm sure they'll come after us," center Andy McCollum said. "We've got a rookie quarterback. And that's probably what they'll do. So we've got to be ready for them."
Fitzpatrick's poise and competitiveness have quickly earned him the respect of his teammates.
"You never see any panic or anything out of him," McCollum said. "He's got a smile on his face most of the time, enjoying himself. So that's good to see. Even if you scrape him up off the ground."
The Vikings, obviously, plan to wipe that smile off his face.
"They miss their quarterback (Bulger) a lot," Tice said. "Nothing against the rookie, but they miss their QB a lot. He's a hell of a trigger man."
At Rams Park, one of the main points of emphasis during the week was the need for a more balanced offense, which in theory would take some pressure off Fitzpatrick to do it with his arm.
Jackson spoke openly of his frustration.
"Give me the ball," Jackson told reporters Thursday.
As if to further make his point, Jackson taped a newspaper headline with those same words - "Give me the ball" - above his locker stall Friday.
For his part, Tice thinks the Rams - and interim head coach Joe Vitt - will adjust their game plan accordingly.
"I think each one of his backs will have a ball in their hand coming off the bus," Tice said.
Seeing will be believing.