By Jim Thomas

The Rams are 18 weeks and 126 days removed from reporting day in July. Mike Martz hasn't strolled the sidelines since early October. The team is down to its third starting quarterback, an Ivy Leaguer by the name of Ryan Joseph Fitzpatrick.

Now, it's December, the month when contenders are separated from pretenders in the National Football League. Both the Rams and the Washington Redskins enter Sunday's 3:05 p.m. kickoff at the Edward Jones Dome with 5-6 records.

That hardly qualifies either squad for contender status. This is an elimination game, pure and simple. The winner moves to 6-6 and maintains playoff hopes for at least another week. The loser falls to 5-7, and for all practical purposes is done for 2005.

At least outwardly, interim head coach Joe Vitt is downplaying any cosmic significance to Sunday's matchup.

"This is our next game, and that's all there is to it," Vitt said. "If you're going to play this game hard because you think there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, well then go click your heels three times somewhere else."

That's Jersey Joe-speak for: Players should play hard and with motivation because they're professionals, no matter what the circumstances.

But the players know what's on the line Sunday. Namely, any hope of reaching the playoffs gets extinguished with a loss. Mathematically, that might not be the case. But realistically, it is.

"I don't think there'll be much of a chance for us to make it to the playoffs if we don't win this game," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "So it's definitely an elimination game in my eyes. . . . The loser's pretty much out of it. We have to win this game if we have any hopes of playing in the playoffs."

No matter what happens Sunday in St. Louis, Seattle (9-2) clinches the NFC West title with a victory Monday in Philadelphia. Actually, the Seahawks win the West with a victory in any one of their five remaining games.

So the only real hope for postseason football for St. Louis is a wild-card berth. And it's all but certain it will take a 10-6 record to claim one of the NFC's two wild-card berths this season.

"You'd definitely need some kind of miracle to make it in with seven losses," linebacker Trev Faulk said.

Of course, any discussion of playoffs would be moot this week in St. Louis were it not for the Rams' miraculous comeback last Sunday in Houston.

The Rams were down 24-3 at halftime and trailed 27-17 with just 34 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. But with the rookie Fitzpatrick providing a spark off the bench, the Rams pulled out a 33-27 overtime victory deep in the heart of Texas.

In the waning moments of play, some Houston players were so certain of victory they had removed the tape from their wrists, shoes, etc.

"You could see they were getting lazy," defensive end Anthony Hargrove said. "You could see they were really worn down. We're known to play four quarters."

For a while in Houston, it looked like the Rams weren't intent on playing any quarters. It looked like they had quit on the season. But in the locker room at halftime, linebacker Dexter Coakley and some other veterans made sure there was an attitude adjustment for the second half.

"We came out fighting like dogs in the second half and got a victory," safety Mike Furrey said.

The challenge now is to build on whatever momentum came out of that comeback in Houston.

"The way we came together, and the way things kind of fell our way at the end, I think it did a lot for our team," wide receiver Kevin Curtis said. "Just to bring us together, keep us together."

We'll see. Perhaps the Rams left Houston with enough confidence to avoid the kind of slow starts that have paralyzed the team for much of the season. Here's the rundown. The Rams fell behind:

-- San Francisco, 28-9, early in the third quarter in their season opener.

-- Tennessee, 10-0, in the first quarter of their home opener.

-- The New York Giants, 27-7, early in the second quarter of Game 4.

-- New Orleans, 14-0 in the first quarter of Game 7.

-- Seattle, 24-6, with five minutes left in the third quarter of Game 9.

-- Houston, 24-3, at halftime.

The Rams managed to win three of those games - Tennessee, New Orleans and Houston - and nearly pulled out a win in the ***** game as well. But it's a heck of a way to make a living.

"For the most part all year, we've been behind," offensive guard Adam Timmerman said. "We've kind of done it to ourselves."

With the exception of the Arizona game Nov. 20, when the Rams trailed by 18 points in the fourth quarter, Timmerman isn't sure why they always seem to be playing from behind.

"I did think we were flat for the Arizona game," Timmerman said. "I think coming off the game in Seattle and all that, we were flat."

(A 31-16 loss Nov. 13 in Seattle all but eliminated St. Louis from the NFC West race.)

This week, Vitt stressed the importance of starting quickly against Washington. He wants the Rams to begin this game with the kind of intensity they displayed in the second half and overtime in Houston.

And if they don't? Well, it'll be too late. Too late to salvage the 2005 season, anyway