ARLINGTON (AP) – A few hours before the Cardinals start taking batting practice for Game 4 of the World Series, their NFL neighbors from St. Louis will be kicking off their next game an Albert Pujols long ball away.
The contrast is stark: One St. Louis team will be playing for a championship. The other will be seeking its first win.
Then again, the contrast is pretty stark for the home teams, too. The Texas Rangers are playing for a championship for a second straight year, while their highfalutin’ neighbors are mired in the longest title drought in franchise history.
Neither the Rams nor the Cowboys will earn contender status with a win Sunday, but both sure could use one. Badly. Dallas (2-3) has lost two straight, while St. Louis is 0-5 and the only one of the NFL’s winless clubs angry about being part of the Andrew Luck Derby.
“I think our football team is better today than it was three weeks ago, which was before our bye week,” Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “The goal here, the drive here, is to just get better. We know it’s not good enough, that’s obvious by our scores and our record. But our quest here is to continue to get better with the hope that if we get over the hump here and win a game, we can kind of get on a roll.”
The Rams have scored a measly 49 points – two field goals less than Dallas’ kicker alone has scored. And offense is St. Louis’ strong suit. The Rams have the NFL’s third-worst defense, and are at the very bottom when it comes to stopping the run.
St. Louis’ offense could get a boost Sunday from the arrival of receiver Brandon Lloyd, who was acquired from Denver this week. However, the Rams won’t have their star quarterback, Sam Bradford. He was ruled out Saturday because of a high ankle sprain, making a starter out of A.J. Feeley for the first time since 2007.
Put it all together, and it sets up perfectly for the Cowboys to finally have a breakout game.
And that could be their biggest concern.
This is a team that struggles with good fortune. They blew a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead in the opener, a 24-point third-quarter lead in their last home game and a three-point lead at New England in the final minutes last Sunday. Their only wins required late comebacks.
“I think everybody understands you don’t take anybody lightly in this league,” tight end Jason Witten said. “We’re a 2-3 team – we’ve got to go and find a win.”
Dallas is on a nerve-frazzling roll of 11 straight games decided by four points or less. Oddsmakers have nonetheless made the Cowboys about a two-touchdown favorite, so another loss – or even another squeaker – might crank up the simmering heat around first-year coach Jason Garrett.
“The way we’ve been playing, we know (our fans) have been smashing a lot of flatscreens,” linebacker Bradie James said.
Garrett has been criticized by team owner Jerry Jones each of the last two weeks, first for passing instead of running while blowing the biggest lead in franchise history in the loss to Detroit, then for running instead of passing while only ahead of New England by a field goal. Jones has since said he shouldn’t have said anything, even if all he really said was what fans were already thinking.
Garrett’s play calls have especially been poor close to the goal line. Dallas has kicked five more field goals than extra points, a feat matched only by winless Miami. The Cowboys settled for three points instead of seven on both deep drives in the second half against the Patriots, never even throwing to Miles Austin, Dez Bryant or Jason Witten once inside the 20.
The offense could be further limited Sunday. The line is being patched together, with Montrae Holland going from unemployed the first six weeks to starting at left guard. Also, running back Felix Jones is likely out with a high ankle sprain, with rookie DeMarco Murray taking his place. Murray played with the Rams’ Bradford on the Oklahoma Sooners.
“I got to get that scouting report – maybe Sam has a little insight we can steal,” Spagnuolo said.
One thing that should help prevent the Cowboys from expecting a cakewalk is what happened the last time these teams met, in 2008.
Tony Romo was out with an injury, but everyone expected backup Brad Johnson and a 4-2 squad to beat a Rams club that was 1-4. Steven Jackson ran for 160 yards and three touchdowns, and Johnson threw three interceptions, as St. Louis cruised to a 34-14 victory that was significant because it was the last time the Rams won that season. They lost their final 10 to lock up the top pick and the opportunity to draft Bradford. Dallas wound up 9-7 and missed the playoffs, with the loss to St. Louis often cited as the difference between being in and being out.
There is one caveat to both teams’ struggles. They’ve faced some pretty good teams.
Dallas’ foes are a combined 21-8. Every opponent was undefeated at kickoff until last week, when New England was 4-1. St. Louis’ foes are a combined 19-9; three are in first place.
And then there’s that giant shadow looming over them – the potential champions who are soaking up the spotlight now, but will be done playing soon. At that point, folks will start scrutinizing the lack of wins and making the inevitable comparisons to their baseball brethren who will be either league champions or World Series champs.
“To have the Cards involved in the World Series, I think it jacks all of us up, everybody in this building included,” Spagnuolo said.
Said Witten, laughing: “We don’t need any more (pressure). But that’s OK, we’ll embrace it.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)