Rams, Chiefs Meet Sunday

Sam Bradford (AP/Charles Krupa)

ST. LOUIS - For the first time in a long time, the two NFL franchises in Missouri, the St. Louis Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs, are playing meaningful football games in the middle of December.

The intrastate rivals, separated by the nearly 250 miles of Interstate 70, combined for a total of 16 victories the three seasons from 2007-09. This year, the two will meet on Sunday afternoon at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis as the first-place teams in their respective divisions, fighting for playoff berths.

"We're two similar teams," Chiefs coach Todd Haley said. "Things have been a little broke for a while, and we've had new coaches, new personnel and trying to turn it around. And I think you're seeing progress from both teams in a positive direction, which is a good thing, and it should be a good game on Sunday."

St. Louis (6-7) leads the NFC West in the second year under coach Steve Spagnuolo, the former New York Giants defensive coordinator. Kansas City (8-5) is atop the AFC West under Haley, a second-year head coach and former offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals.

There are plenty of similarities between the two franchises.

Both have dealt with the passing of their longtime owners - Lamar Hunt in Kansas City and Georgia Frontiere in St. Louis - in recent years. Both saw an overhaul of the front offices and coaching staffs. And both have been among the worst teams in the NFL in recent seasons.

The Rams went 6-42 from 2007-09. The Chiefs went 10-38 during that same span.

"The NFL, you know, they say it changes quickly, and I think this year's a pretty good example," third-year Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "We're certainly part of that turnover, where teams are coming from the bottom to the top. It makes it fun and interesting. That's why I think it's the best sport in the world and the best league in the world and you never really know what happens and nothing's given to any team."

The turnaround has been less dramatic in Kansas City, which went 4-12 last season - the four wins being a mark that the Rams were unable to reach during the past three seasons.

"We're laying the foundation," Haley said. "We're still in that process of trying to become a good team. The Kansas City Chiefs are not there, obviously, but we are going in the right direction and we're seeing some reward, which is some wins and reward for the hard work and sacrifice that the guys are putting in.

"But we're making progress. That's the key for us, and that's been our goal, is to just get a little better every day - every Wednesday, every Thursday, every Friday and then every Sunday - and we've done that, for the most part, and that's why I think we're sitting where we're sitting."

Sunday's game will mark the fifth time that the teams have met since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995. With three weeks remaining in the regular season, the outcome could determine which team makes the playoffs.

The Rams wrap up the regular season with a home game against the San Francisco 49ers (5-9) next week and then a road game against Seattle (6-7).

The Chiefs, who are coming off a 31-0 loss at San Diego, host the Tennessee Titans (5-8) and Oakland Raiders (6-7) at Arrowhead Stadium the final two weeks.

"I think at this point of the year, every game is a must win," Chiefs running back Thomas Jones said. "December is a very important month for football. It comes down to the wire for a lot of teams to accomplish some of the goals that they set at the beginning of the year. Every game is a must-win game for every team. Whether you have an opportunity to play in the postseason or whether teams are evaluating players and guys are playing for their job security, each game is a must win for every team at this time."

Rams running back Steven Jackson, who last week became the 12th player in NFL history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in six consecutive seasons, was careful this week to make sure that the team didn't get caught looking ahead and focused on the task in front of them this week.

"We've been a team that, we show up and some games we play absolutely good football and some games we come up short," he said. "First things first is taking care of a hostile Kansas City team that's coming in that's been impressive. I'm sure they'll have a pretty significant following that's probably going to come down Sunday in the Dome, as well. It's going to make for an intense game. Both teams have a lot to play for. They still have San Diego nipping at their heels. So both teams have to play good football."

The Chiefs certainly pose plenty of problems for the Rams.

They lead the NFL in rushing (165.4 yards per game) and have two talented running backs in Jamaal Charles (1,177 yards rushing, three touchdowns) and the veteran Jones (766 rushing yards, five touchdowns). Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (59 catches, 888 yards, 14 touchdowns) has been one of the top wideouts in the league this season.

"It's always difficult when you're playing the No. 1 rushing team in the league and they come at you with different guys doing that," Spagnuolo said. "It's not only the backs, but they've got (Dexter) McCluster who kind of lines up as a wideout and they hand the ball off. That's all rushing yards, but they've got a lot of speed. They do a lot of things on the edge, a lot of cutbacks, things we've got to be concerned about."

Kansas City has to be concerned with its quarterback situation, with Matt Cassel (2,503 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, four interceptions) recovering from an appendectomy and questionable for Sunday's game.

The St. Louis Rams are fortunate that they don't have to worry about who will be under center on Sunday or for the foreseeable future after hitting on No. 1 overall draft pick Sam Bradford.

The 2008 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Oklahoma has made a dramatic impact on the Rams this season, teaming with Jackson (1,081 rushing yards, four touchdowns) to lead an offense that lost playmaking wide receivers Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton to season-ending knee injuries early in the year.

Bradford has completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 2,884 yards, with 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He has a quarterback rating of 79.1.

Beyond the numbers, the rookie has made the Rams relevant again.

"I would say that this game is probably big, probably one of the bigger games we've played this year," Bradford said. "The fact that we're still playing in big games in mid-December, I think that's really good for this team and this organization and hopefully the games will only continue to get bigger."

Missouri governor Jay Nixon visited Rams practice on Friday and said that the winner of Sunday's game will receive the Governor's Cup, the trophy that goes to the winner of the rivalry, after the game.

"It's just so neat to have both teams from your state playing," Nixon said, "both of them leading their division, both of them having a game that really, really matters in December here, a game that has direct implications about whether these teams make it back to the playoffs this year. I'm just hoping for an exciting game, and we're all hoping a different Chiefs team shows up than the one that showed up last week. Otherwise the Rams are going to roll."

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