By Jim Thomas
Saturday, Sep. 16 2006

SAN FRANCISCO Isaac Bruce could see the question coming almost before it came

"Do you have to ask that every year?" he said, in mild protest.

Uh, yes. As the only remaining "Los Angeles" Ram on the St. Louis roster, is
the San Francisco rivalry still special to Bruce?

"Every week is special," Bruce replied. "There's no bigger emphasis this week.
It's the *****, so you've got to get ready to play. They're going to be ready
to play."

So there will be no big rivalry speeches from Bruce before the 3:05 p.m.
kickoff (St. Louis time) Sunday at Monster Park.

"Not one," Bruce said.

Then again, as place-kicker Jeff Wilkins points out: "Isaac doesn't give a big
speech any time. He talks with his work ethic and his play on the field."

Bruce has been playing the ***** since 1994, the last season for the Rams in
Southern California. He was on the field in St. Louis in 1995 when then *****
defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield uttered the infamous refrain: "Same old
sorry (bleep) Rams."

He was on the field for 10 of the 17 straight losses the ***** inflicted on the
Rams from 1990 through '98. He caught four TD passes against them on that
magical day in 1999 when the Rams snapped that losing streak. And he has
witnessed the ebb and flow of the series since then.

So perhaps his "un-special" comments about the rivalry are telling. This is a
different time, and a different year. With a new coaching staff. And a Rams
team still carving out its identity.

"Mike (Martz) really enjoyed it; '49er Week' is what he called it," wide
receiver Torry Holt said.

"When Mike was the head coach here, he never let us forget it," long snapper
Chris Massey said. "It was always our biggest rival of the year."

Like Bruce, Martz had worked for the Rams back in Los Angeles (as an assistant

Growing up a football fan in the Seattle area, the Rams' new head coach --
Scott Linehan -- was aware of the Rams-***** rivalry. But Linehan was coaching
wide receivers at the University of Idaho in 1990, when San Francisco began
that 17-game winning streak.

He was an assistant at the University of Washington in 1995 when Stubblefield
called them the "same old ... Rams." And he was offensive coordinator at the
University of Louisville in 1999 when the Rams finally ended the streak, and
***** executive Bill Walsh dropped into Dick Vermeil's post-game press
conference to tell his old friend, "You're going all the way, baby."

Linehan has less concern for history than for the realities of 2006. After
winning his head-coaching debut last week over Denver in one of Week 1's
biggest upset, he's trying to give the Rams their first 2-0 start since 2001.

"It's a huge game in the fact that we're playing our first road game, in the
division, against a team that we consider a rival," Linehan said.

Dating to the end of the 2003 season, the Rams have lost 12 of 17
regular-season road games. One of the road losses last season came against the
lowly *****, who went 2-12 against the rest of the league last season but
managed to sweep the Rams.

"Last year, with the two losses we had and the way the games went, it
definitely left a sour taste in my mouth," defensive end Anthony Hargrove said.

The 2005 Rams opened their season in San Francisco. Just 1 second into that
contest, they had the ball on their 1-yard line when Chris Johnson inexplicably
stepped out of bounds with the opening kickoff. Martz threw the red
instant-replay-challenge flag -- and lost.

In that 28-25 loss:

The Rams struggled in the red zone -- sound familiar? -- scoring only one
touchdown in five trips inside the *****' 20.

Safety Michael Hawthorne botched what looked like a sure interception,
claiming he lost the ball in the sun. The "sun" didn't seem to bother *****
wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who caught a 35-yard TD pass on the play.

***** receiver Arnaz Battle fooled the Rams on a pair of trick plays,
completing two passes.

The ***** put 28 points on the board despite being outgained by the Rams, 405
yards to 217.

As if to prove that game wasn't a fluke, the ***** did it again on Christmas
Eve in St. Louis. The obscure Maurice Hicks went 73 yards on the first play
from scrimmage for a TD, helping the ***** snap a seven-game losing streak with
a 24-20 victory.

Although no one has the 2006 ***** penciled in for the Super Bowl, they do look
noticeably improved. Quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005
draft, looks like he knows what he's doing. Running back Frank Gore, wide
receiver Antonio Bryant and tight end Vernon Davis provide playmaking ability.
On defense, there are still some familiar faces, such as defensive tackle
Bryant Young, linebacker Derek Smith and safety Tony Parrish.

The ***** may not be worldbeaters, but they don't figure to be pushovers,

As running back Steven Jackson put it, "Just because we beat the Denver Broncos
doesn't make this a 'relax' game." In fact, any gains in confidence or
self-image resulting from the Denver game could be wiped out quickly with a
loss Sunday.

"All it did was give us one win," Hargrove said. "We could play good last week,
and then we could stink this week, and we're back to where everybody thinks
(little) of us."