Where do the Rams go from 3-6?
They have to try to rev it up yet another weekend, try to persuade themselves another time that yes, they still have something to play for this season--even if it may only be that old standby, pride, against a team that no longer makes you goose-pimply.
A decade ago, it would have been the glamour matchup of the day: Rams vs. Cowboys. Winner vs. winner.
This year, it is merely another game between teams with six victories combined and perhaps only the 1991 draft to look forward to.
The Cowboys (3-7), with 27th-rated offense in the league, haven't scored a touchdown in November and never really expected to reach the playoffs this season. The 3-6 Rams, the 26th-ranked defense, are holding onto their gaudy preseason playoff aspirations only by the grace of the NFC's rampant mediocrity and fading memories of their playoff run in 1989.
"We know where we stand," Ram defensive end Doug Reed said. "There's not really much light at the end of that tunnel.
"But I think right now we're trying to end this season the best way we can, and that's winning football games. We'd rather go out on a winning note. Say we ended the season winning. Then we'd go into next year as winners, not losers. I think that's important."
At least last week the Rams had the adrenaline rush of playing a superior football team to push them. The Giants raise pulse levels (they also beat the Rams, 31-7), and next week's opponents, the San Francisco 49ers, are always good for winning Super Bowls and energizing the Rams.
"I don't think there's quite the same focus (with Dallas) as there is with the Giants," Coach John Robinson said. "But I think we're practicing well. I think we want to get back playing. I don't see any retreat or any withdrawal from that at all.
"(But) I've been unable to figure out some of our (ups and downs), so I say that with some trepidation."
The Rams can try to adapt to the role of spoilers next week. This week, it is the Cowboys, and the only thing the Rams can possibly spoil is the lingering hope that they could suddenly rise up and jump back into the playoff hunt.
"I wouldn't write the Rams off yet," quarterback Jim Everett said. "Granted, we've had a lot of things go against us. We haven't played our best football yet.
"You've got to realize that last year we had a lot of games that were very close that we did win. We've been very unfortunate this year, just not having those things go for us as much."
Last year's game against Dallas was a case in point. The Rams went into Texas Stadium with an 8-4 record and barely beat the 1-11 Cowboys with a second-half rally, 35-31. Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman threw four touchdown passes, but was stopped in the final minutes inside the Ram 20-yard line.
This year, although the Dallas defense has played better, Aikman has been openly critical about the direction of the offense, and was told at least once by offensive coordinator David Shula to temper both his on-field remarks to teammates and his off-field comments to reporters.
Four times already this season, the Cowboys have been held without a touchdown--compared to five times during their 1-15 season last year--and they are averaging only 12.5 points.
Rookie tailback Emmitt Smith, who was used to carrying the ball 30 times a game in college, got it six times for 40 yards last week in Dallas' 24-6 loss to the 49ers, and also raised some questions about the offensive scheme afterward. It figures that Smith, who has gained 468 yards in 123 carries this season, will see the ball a lot more this week.
There is no such controversy among the Rams, but there are other problems.
"It's hurting all of us because we all expected a lot for ourselves," Reed said. "It's like a hard swallow, but as you know, life goes on. For us to sit here and, whoa, be stunned about what's happened to us, well, Dallas is coming to town.
"If we do that, then we've surrendered. We've surrendered and said, 'OK, you can have us.' I don't think this football team is a bunch of quitters. We're going to hang in there."
Said Everett, who has watched his own usually strong offense score two touchdowns in the last three weeks: "We're a very proud unit that wants to play this weekend, wants to get back to 4-6 and then we'll continue from there."
Said Reed: "I don't think we can take anybody lightly right now. We're not better than them at this point, as far as the record is concerned.
"It's just like last year we went to Dallas and Dallas was the underdog and we were highly favored and they made one heck of a game out of it. So just looking at it from that standpoint, we were playing a lot better then than we are now."
Cowboy Coach Jimmy Johnson played down any suggestion that he and quarterback Troy Aikman were at odds over the team's offensive philosophy. Aikman told Dallas reporters recently that he had been told to keep calmer on the field, and it was reported that he and receiver Michael Irvin shouted at one another in the locker room last week.
"Troy is a very competitive individual," Johnson said. "He puts a lot of presure on himself and at times gets upset when the offense is not having success. At times, he has to be more on an even keel. I think Troy has done some good things, especially when you consider that he is in his second year and he missed a big portion of last year. So much is dictated by his supporting cast, and I think that's true of any quarterback. We've got such an inexperienced supporting cast for Troy that things have been inconsistent."
Ram receiver Henry Ellard is eight receptions away from passing Tom Fears' team record of 400.