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Stuck in the middle

Rams can light it up, but they're not super

The last time we saw the guys in the horned helmets, they were standing numbly in Nawlins while their star-spangled rivals carried Adam Vinatieri off the Superdome floor. The Patriots have earned another set of championship rings since then and strung together a 21-game winning streak. And the St. Louis Rams have gone on a jolting carnival ride that still hasn't quite leveled off.

Since they lost to New England on the final play of Super Bowl XXXVI 2 1/2 years ago, the Rams have gone 7-9 (after starting 0-5) and 12-4, losing to Carolina (remember them?) in double overtime in the playoffs. Now, they're 4-3 and coming off an embarrassing loss to the league's worst team.

So, whatever happened to the "Greatest Show On Turf"?

"I don't know what you would call us now, but we are still pretty good on offense," said Marc Bulger, who'll be calling signals for his shoulder-padded track team when St. Louis hosts the Patriots Sunday afternoon.

The Rams now may be merely "The Really Good Show," as Bulger acknowledges, but they still have enough flash and dash to dazzle a banged-up New England secondary. "St. Louis is explosive whenever you play them," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "First week or 10th week."

The Rams can also be implosive, having given up 34 points to Atlanta, 28 to New Orleans, 27 to Seattle, and a shocking 31 to a Miami bunch that has averaged barely a dozen a game. Which is why the Rams aren't talking about any Patriotic payback this weekend. They're just trying to stay on top of the NFC West and make the playoffs.

"Payback really isn't an issue with me," said Rams coach Mike Martz. "We are just trying to keep our head above water, so I just don't look at it like that. If we were better, then maybe I would consider that."

The Rams are in transition now, somewhere between where they were three years ago and where they'd like to be again. "We are trying to get back there," said Martz. "We are not there. We are a fairly good team. I think we will eventually be a real good team, but we are a ways away from being there."

Two games -- the crazy victory over the Seahawks and the inexplicable loss to the Dolphins -- tell the tale of a team betwixt.

St. Louis, trailing, 27-10, at Seattle with fewer than six minutes to play, coolly ran off 23 points, tying the game with eight seconds left in regulation and winning in overtime on a 52-yard pass from Bulger to Shaun McDonald. "That really sums up how explosive they are," said Belichick, "and how many points they can score in a hurry."

The Rams can also give up a lot in a hurry -- 17 in the fourth quarter to the Dolphins, who hadn't scored that many in a game. "There is no excuse for it," said Bulger. "We can make a million excuses, but there isn't."

Big plays, including 42-yard and 71-yard touchdown passes, did them in that day. "We give up three plays for 160 yards," mused Martz. "Without those three plays, they have 150 yards on offense, and we will take control of that game."

For all their aerial reputation, the Rams would rather not have to win 42-35 shootouts. "I do know that you win on defense," said Martz, whose drafts and free agent signings have been D-heavy. "There is no question about that. I like to tease and talk about those other things, but it has been my ambition to be the best defense in the league."

Right now, the Rams are ranked 28th -- 27th against the run, 23d against the pass. Except for ageless Aeneas Williams and fellow safety Adam Archuleta, the Super Bowl unit largely has moved on. The youngish bunch that suits up now is still a project in progress. "I would like to be very multiple and unpredictable, much like we are on offense," said Martz. "That is where we would like to be. Hopefully, we can attain that, but we'll see."

The offense, with wideouts Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, still resembles a flying circus. "When you watch those guys play," said Belichick, "the ball is in the air and down the field."

That much hasn't changed in three years. The instincts and the concepts are still there. But some of the key faces are different, starting with the quarterback. Bulger, who was the inactive third man in 2001, is The Man now. Kurt Warner is working in the Meadowlands. Something like what happened to Tom Brady and Drew Bledsoe hereabouts.

"We just felt like the future, ultimately, was going to be in Marc's hands and it was really the time," said Martz. "Since Marc's contract was up, basically, we had to do something. His situation forced our hand, so to speak. It was a difficult decision, but in the long run I think it is the best decision."

Marshall Faulk is still the running back, but he shares time with rookie Steven Jackson now. Joey Goodspeed is the fullback, Brandon Manumaleuna the tight end. But the Big Top multiple-ring circus by the Mississippi goes on.

"Mike just keeps throwing logs on the pile," said Belichick. "He has 10 logs on the fire anyway, and then he comes and dumps three more on there -- an unbalanced line, Jackson and Faulk on the field together, all the trick and gadget plays they have -- the reverse passes, the double passes, the crisscross counters. You start throwing all of that stuff in, too, and the volume is very extensive. It is enormous."

That was the Barnum and Bailey act the Patriots grounded for the sport's biggest prize. "It was just a tremendous football game and they absolutely deserved to win it," said Martz. "They took the ball away from us three times and they scored at the end when they had to."

They've only seen each other on the tube and on tape since. The Patriots -- last Sunday's hiccup notwithstanding -- have become the best team in football. The Rams now are somewhere in the great middle, with upward aspirations. "It's a thrill to play them because I know they are the best," said Martz. "That part of it, the challenge of it, for me is more exciting than any kind of payback."

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