By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
11/02/2008

Four weeks ago, such a sentiment would've been viewed as preposterous. But cornerback Fakhir Brown summed things up succinctly a few days ago at Rams Park.

"If we win this game, we'll be right back in it," Brown said Wednesday.

Strange but true. At 2-5, the Rams can play their way back into the division race with a victory Sunday over Arizona at the Edward Jones Dome.

"In any other division, we'd be almost out of it," quarterback Marc Bulger said.

Not in the NFC West. A victory puts the Rams at 3-5, and Bill Bidwill's Cardinals at 4-4, with half a season to play. Such an outcome would be just short of amazing considering the Rams have played the NFC's toughest schedule so far this season, and started so ineptly at 0-4.

But the team's 2-1 record against Washington, Dallas, and New England — with two of those three games on the road — has turned heads in the NFL. The Rams have the same players who stumbled their way through September. But it's a different team.

One that tackles better, creates turnovers, and gets to the passer more often on defense. One that runs the football better, takes better care of the football, and is suddenly capable of the big play (thanks to the emergence of Donnie Avery).

"I think we can get out there and compete with anybody in the league right now," Brown said.

However, a loss to the Cardinals puts the Rams at 2-6 and three games behind the division leaders who would be 5-3. Catching the Cards would be all but impossible, and given the strength of the NFC East and NFC South a wild-card berth appears out of the question.

The implications are obvious, so obvious in fact, that coach Jim Haslett didn't feel the need to bang his players over the head with them.

"I haven't really said anything," Haslett said. "Having a chance to play this team and stay in this race, I think everybody understands what's at stake."

One thing Haslett has stressed is that it's going to be difficult to win this game without scoring touchdowns. (With emphasis on the plural.) The Rams scored only one TD against Washington — and it was a defensive score. They crossed the goal-line only once last week in New England.

That won't cut it against an Arizona team that is averaging a league-high 28.6 points a game.

"We're going to have to score touchdowns, and we're going to have to try to make them kick field goals," Haslett said.

With or without running back Steven Jackson, the Rams would be willing to take their chances if this were a game of 7-on-7. Avery has injected new life into the passing game. Keenan Burton is starting to make his presence felt. The third member of the Teen Squad, Derek Stanley, could have a larger role in the offense this week now that he's back from a concussion. And in case you hadn't heard, seven-time Pro Bowler Torry Holt wants the ball, too.

For the Rams, the concern is pass protection. As good as the run blocking was last week against New England, the pass blocking was just as bad. Patriots defensive tackle Richard Seymour spent so much time in the St. Louis backfield he should've been handed a Rams jersey.

Right tackle Alex Barron, left guard Jacob Bell, and center Nick Leckey all struggled at times with pass protection. On three occasions, the man Barron was blocking ended up sacking Bulger, although a couple of those times, pressure from other defenders flushed Bulger towards Barron's man.

The Rams have thrown only 200 passes this season, the sixth-lowest total in the league, and 58 fewer attempts than they had after seven games last season. Yet only four teams have allowed more sacks than the Rams' 24.

Bertrand Berry and Travis LaBoy share Arizona's team lead with four sacks apiece. But the Big Red's most feared pass rusher may be Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson.

"I've played against him now for years," Bulger said. "That's the one guy that I think it's real important to know where he is at all times. ... They blitz him. He's a linebacker playing safety. You saw what he did to Buffalo's quarterback."

Wilson knocked Trent Edwards out of the game earlier this season. Three years ago, Wilson knocked Bulger out of 2005 with a blitz that resulted in a season-ending shoulder injury.