Steadily, grain by grain, the Rams have been rebuilding reasons for hope since the day Billy Devaney arrived. Roster mistakes were purged, heads in the front office rolled, and ultimately Coach Spagnuolo was brought in to take a much younger, more anonymous team and instill in them the meaning of fight, and of family. He brought this group together, praised those that worked hard and integrated new players willing to work harder. The wins didn't come, but the ground was made fertile and new again, allowing for the planting of new seeds of hope.
Given the first pick in the draft, the Rams didn't mess around or dodge their fate. They saw a man they liked to become the new face of the team, and put him through every conceivable test before saying, "Yes Sam, you're our guy." That the decision meant paying the biggest rookie contract ever while trying to sell the team? Done. No problem. That the decision meant handing your franchise to a man who played a mere handful of snaps since 2008? A risk, but one with immense potential for reward, glimpses of which we saw in the preseason.
Now these Rams face the next big test -- a sold out home crowd, and a bloodied and dangerous division opponent, and a game that counts. All their work, the re-riveting of the iron core of this team, rebuilding it to withstand punishment, re-arming it to deliver more in kind, leads up to this moment, to this kickoff, this Sunday afternoon.
What the world will be watching
1. Can Sam Bradford keep the magic going that he started in the preseason?
Can he reinvigorate this franchise, reenergize the fans; can he make the Dome loud again? Can he continue to turn relative unknowns like Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola, Mark Clayton and Brandon Gibson into dangerous weapons? Can his offensive line keep him upright, in the process?
2. Did Ken Whisenhunt cut off his nose to spite his face?
I don't blame the Cardinals coach one bit. If I was him, I wouldn't want to go to war with a milquetoast underwear pitchman like Matt Leinert either. But shouldn't the Cardinals have been better prepared for this scenario? Wasn't there a better option out there than Derek Anderson, who now takes the reins of the once-feared Arizona offense? The same Derek Anderson who had only one game last season with a QB rating higher than 60? Is doing the right thing for your team's morale going to kill their chances of contending in this division? (If the Rams' defense stifles the Cardinals, don't expect them to get a lot of credit from the national media.)
3. Which team will fold down the stretch?
Make no mistake, the wolves are out on both of these teams. The team that wins isn't going to get as much credit for the decision as the team that loses. If the Rams falter? Oh well, same old Rams. If they prevail? It will be a referendum on the franchise's return to quarterback hell after Kurt Warner's retirement. The Cardinals are favored by 4 almost as a courtesy by the Vegas oddsmakers, but that line was once a touchdown. Confidence is not high in the desert.
What I'll be watching
1. How to defend the pocket, and attack from it. Looking beyond the obvious problems at quarterback, and not-so-obvious problems at offensive line -- which is almost wholly dependent on the name value of Alan Faneca to run Whisenhunt's vaunted power-running game that brought the Steelers back to playoff prominence -- the Cardinals present a very challenging defensive puzzle for the Rams to solve. They play a 3-4 with two very effective inside rushers in Calais Campbell (primarily lined up inside Saffold) and Darnell Dockett (primarily working between Jason Smith and Adam Goldberg), with Joey Porter gunning from the OLB spot. Identifying the rush and getting his protections in order will be a key task for Bradford.
Second task? Eluding the rush when it does come, because it will. Danny Amendola, Steven Jackson, and the TEs will be key targets as they attempt to occupy voids left by these aggressive rushers. But most importantly, the Rams' offensive line must steel themselves against the threat of the rush. Penalties from the line will really hurt the offense in this matchup, as it gives the Cardinals a green light to pin their ears back and get after the QB.
Third, and perhaps most subtly, will be Bradford's nerves. He's been jumpy early in each of his landmark starts -- that first Saturday practice with 2000 fans in attendance, the Lindenwood scrimmage, and his first preseason action against Minnesota. Each time he has settled quickly, but this nationally televised afternoon game represents the biggest test so far. (For a parallel, I marveled at the cool head of Drew Brees, who mishandled a snap in his own end zone on third down, but picked it up and jogged to his right to find Robert Meacham for a 30-yard gainer. Unbelievable calm.)
2. Who covers Larry Fitzgerald?
As I wrote in my Week 1 QB Analysis for Fanball's OwnersEdge subscribers, the shift from Captain Checkdown (Matt Leinert) to Señor Staredown (Derek Anderson) almost certainly means more targets for Larry Fitzgerald, the team's unquestioned #1 receiver. Traditionally, #11 has been Ron Bartell's man, but Bradley Fletcher has come on in the preseason and we saw him blanketing Randy Moss for much of the Patriots game. The ball-hungry Atogwe should also figure in prominently, as there will most certainly be passes up for grabs. Getting turnovers, and getting points off them, will be the surest way to break the spirit of these Cardinals, and give this game to the upstart Rams.
3. Who will win this game late?
I expect this game to be close in the 4th quarter (unless the Rams have blown the Cards out by then :D ) and the Rams must continue to make aggressive, smart plays if they want to win it. The crowd will be nervous with anticipation, waiting for a reason to explode. Will it be a James Laurinaitis stuff? Will it be a Chris Long sack? Will it be a leaping, sticky-fingered catch by Brandon Gibson (who, the last time he faced the Cardinals, got 17 targets)? Will it be a second- and third-effort run by Steven Jackson, willing the offense to a critical first down?
Final prediction: Rams 27, Cardinals 23
Ultimately, this game comes down to stopping a last-gasp, touchdown-or-bust 4th quarter drive from the Cardinals. This game will hinge on the Rams' defense playing the last of the game's 60 minutes as fiercely as the first.
Do you believe? I'm ready to.