After three quarters of the season, Rams enter the final stretch of the season at .500, 6-6, and presumably have the division title in their reach, adding an allure to this prime time matchup. This is the time when a team that's learning how to take the next step forward needs to bear down and simply focus on gameplanning and executing for the task at hand.
Under the lights of Monday Night Football, though, the Rams will find themselves awash in the media's story machine, full of comparisons to last year's disaster in prime time. It will be the primary storyline, and it will be Seattle's primary motivation to play spoiler before a national TV audience in their home stadium. This may be their super bowl, and as such, the biggest opponent the Rams may have to contend with is the still-formidable "12th man" in Seattle.
The Rams brought out speakers on the practice field this summer, to practice under hostile conditions. But considering I could still talk with the fans next to me while these practice sessions were going on, and my fillings were failing to rattle out of my teeth, I'm not sure that this simulation adequately prepared the offense for the challenge they'll face at the Clink.
However, by this point in the season, the Rams will have faced much more adversity than simple noise or atmosphere or bright lights. At this point, they'll know a little bit about whether they can execute their offense and defense under adverse conditions. I'm betting that they can, and if so, will easily be the better team on the field.
Derek: "Having faced tough road battles already in 2011 going to Seattle is no new feat. At this point McDaniels has the offense clicking along. Lance Kendricks has shown to be a favorite target of Bradford it again opens up the running game for Steven Jackson to break for over 100 yards."
This game will test the Rams in ways that few others on the schedule will. We don't play in the best division, but division rivalry games are always heated and tightly contested. We have only recently shucked off the "doormat" identity, and it's easy to have sympathy for teams like the Bengals that have, and let's put it nicely, very little going for them.
Marvin Lewis can't be superstoked to be leading ultra-raw (and red-headed) quarterback Andy Dalton into battle, with his own job security most certainly on the line, while his employer engages in yet another pissing match with a star player.
Carson Palmer has vowed never to play another down for this franchise, and I can't say I blame him. But essentially keeping him around in a portable doghouse chained to the back of the team bus just underscores the gulf in leadership that is plaguing this franchise, and makes December road trips like this one painfully depressing for the team and its fans.
The challenge for the Rams? Keeping that empathy off the field for the 60 minutes of gametime it will take to dispatch this clearly inferior opponent. You can shake hands afterwards and commisserate, but not until you've posted a W. Anything less will haunt this team for a long time.
Tim: "The poor Bengals come to town at the wrong time. On the day the Rams celebrate Marshall Faulk and with the Dome rockin', the Rams go out and destroy the lonely Bengals. Clinching the division and the playoffs with their 8th win."
At this point, fans will have to be liking the Rams' chances of making the playoffs. But here's where they get a taste of the consequences - a road trip into brutal playing conditions to face off against one of the most physical, disciplined and dangerous teams in the league, and have it matter.
Barring some sort of disaster, the Steelers will be in their usual December mode, brutalizing the interior of their opponents' offensive lines and completely erasing the run game, daring quarterbacks to stand in the pocket and pass into their secondary, and take the punishment everyone knows is coming from the likes of James Harrison and Lamar Woodley. The pair of outside linebackers combined for a staggering 27 sacks, 28 quarterback hits, and 96 pressures. Sure, the Steelers can be beaten through the air, and physical receivers like Lance Kendricks have the best playmaking opportunities, but you're going to pay the price for trying to get them the ball.
The best thing that Bradford did in his rookie year was take every snap, take hits (some of them brutal ones) and get right back up to erase the "fragile" label that threatened to dog him after his injury-shortened Junior year at Oklahoma. So don't think anyone is questioning his toughness here.
But if I'm the Rams, I might call a lot more max-protect in this game than usual, and be content with a few more punts than usual, and try to win this one on defense.
Derek: "Christmas Eve outside in Pittsburgh in a game that has playoff implications for both teams…think we all know how this ends. Much improved, yes, but the Rams have not played this kind of team in this kind of game in a long time. Rams lose but it prepares them for week 17."
Once again, the Rams should have put themselves in a position to win the division in the final week of the season, if not before then. With eight wins in hand, the ball is in Bradford's hands to continue the momentum of the season's second half and into the postseason. Standing in their way, though, is one of their fiercest division rivals.
By this point in the season, we'll have a better idea whether Jim Harbaugh's physics experiment in San Francisco -- offense a jumble of mismatched parts? Just make 'em play faster and no one will notice! -- will be paying off. Alex Smith has been mildly effective in hurry-up packages, and has some weapons in Kendall Hunter and Braylon Edwards who seem to be buying in to the coach's concepts. The offensive line might still be a mess, but there's little that can be done about that.
This 49ers team is a cipher. They could be much improved, they could be midway through the Colin Kaepernick era, or they may be in the running for Andrew Luck.
Ultimately, though, this is still Patrick Willis' team, coaching change or not. And he will be the man putting his fellow players in place to try and combat the McDaniels gameplan, trying to read the play in Bradford's eyes and blow it up. While the roster around him might be churning, Willis is still one of the very best in the game, and stands as the last remaining roadblock to a Rams postseason.
I doubt Bradford, the ultimate competitor, would want it any other way.
Brennan: "The 49ers take their place as NFC West cellar dwellers. Rams starters are rested in the third quarter after taking a commanding lead."