With the expansion of the NFL Network's Thursday night football package, all 32 teams get a crack at a prime-time game in 2012.
So when it came to the woebegone Rams and the post-Kurt Warner Arizona Cardinals, you could almost hear the network executives saying back at scheduling time: Let's pair these two, just to get them out of the way.
Lo and behold, the NFC West has grown fangs this season. It's the best division in football over the first month of the season. The Cardinals at 4-0 are one of only three unbeaten teams; the Rams at 2-2 are suddenly feisty under new coach Jeff Fisher.
Just like that, tonight's 7:20 kickoff at the Edward Jones Dome is a pretty good matchup. The Rams haven't been host to a Thursday night game since late in the 2007 season, a 41-24 loss to Pittsburgh. With thousands of Steelers fans in the dome that night waving Terrible Towels, Marshall Faulk had his jersey number retired, Isaac Bruce played his last home game as a Ram — and oh yeah — Torry Holt could be seen screaming at then-coach Scott Linehan on the St. Louis sideline.
There will be a lot going Thursday as well, including a lunchtime pep rally featuring Faulk at Kiener Plaza. Instead of Terrible Towels, fans will be waving pink rally towels as part of the NFL efforts at breast cancer awareness.
And as usually is the case when St. Louis' football past (Cardinals) meets its football present (Rams) in the Gateway City, Bill Bidwill's Big Red will host a reception for former St. Louis Cardinals. Fitting then, that the Rams will introduce Rams — and Cardinals — legend Warner, an NFL Network commentator, to the dome crowd during a break in the first quarter.
As for what happens on the field, the Rams will be trying to get above the .500 mark for the first time in more than 2,100 days.
“Geez,” defensive end Chris Long said, jolted by that number. “I was a sophomore in college. I've never been over .500 (as a Ram). Correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think I have.”
He's not wrong.
The Rams haven't been above .500 — not even 1-0 — since sporting a 4-3 record on Nov. 4, 2006, or nearly a year and a half before drafting Long No. 2 overall in 2008.
“It's a new day here,” Long said. “Certainly, the past four years — they were tough. For us it's just nice to be able to move on and compete in football games every Sunday and have an opportunity to win ‘em.”
Or Thursday, as the case may be. But as the rest of the league begins to take notice of the NFL's new black-and-blue division — the NFC West — the Rams remain largely off the radar.
“The media likes to point out Seattle,” safety Craig Dahl said. “They like to point out how Arizona's undefeated. They like to point out how San Francisco won the division last year, and they're doing well this year. I think we often get overlooked. So this will be a chance for us to really show the rest of the league and the rest of the NFL fan base that we have a good team.”
“There's nothing wrong with being the underdog, or the one in the back corner not being looked at,” added defensive end Robert Quinn. “That's when you show up and surprise people.”
Of course, the best way to get noticed or earn respect is by winning. The Rams did that Sunday, defeating Seattle 19-13 after losing 13 of the previous 14 meetings with the Seahawks.
Arizona presents a similar challenge. The Cardinals have won 10 of their last 11 against the Rams and haven't lost in St. Louis since 2004. The Big Red have won seven in a row in St. Louis — the longest road winning streak against an opponent in franchise history.
It seems a natural that the Cardinals should be a Rams rival, simply because they left St. Louis for the Arizona desert in 1988 and they're in the same division. But as Fisher points out, it's hard to call it a “rivalry” if you're not winning any games against your rival.
“Yeah, I mean you establish rivalries,” Fisher said. “But I wouldn't imagine we have one based on past history over the last four or five years. We haven't had much of a rivalry with anybody, so we have to work towards that. And that comes from having competitive, great games, and close games and those kind of things.”
Beating the division-leading Cardinals would be a step in that direction. Their 4-0 record marks the franchise's best start since the 1974 “Cardiac Cards” started 7-0 in St. Louis. The 2012 edition is winning games with strong defense and opportunistic play.
It's certainly not a result of overwhelming offense because the Cardinals are the first NFL team since 1941 to start a season 4-0 without as much as 300 yards gained in any of those games.
Fisher is pulling out all the stops to get the most out of his team tonight. On Monday, there was a team yoga session to stretch out the soreness from a physical Seattle team on a short workweek. The Rams practiced later in the day, then had an evening walk-through at the dome Wednesday, to get the players' body clocks used to night football.
Fisher has even taken notice of the fact that the Rams are 2-0 this season when wearing blue jerseys and blue pants at home.
“Oh, there's a really good chance we'll be blue-on-blue (Thursday night),” Fisher said earlier in the week. “And it has nothing to do with me being superstitious.”
Of course not.
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