Of the NFL teams still alive in the long march toward the Super Bowl, the St. Louis Rams (8-5) have by far the most difficult schedule: Minnesota (11-2), Tampa Bay (8-5) and New Orleans (8-5).
But at least they'll get NFL leader Minnesota at St. Louis today, where they can win if they do two things:
* Regain much of the offensive form they flashed during a spectacular season-opening six-game winning streak.
* Retain the defensive form they showed in Carolina last Sunday, when the Panthers won without scoring an offensive touchdown, 16-3.
Quarterback Kurt Warner will be better in his second start after a 5 1/2-week injury layoff but a serious defensive question remains:
Can the Rams double-cover Minnesota receivers Randy Moss and Chris Carter, and still stop runner Robert Smith up the middle?
HEADING FOR 14-2: As usual, it was quarterback Daunte Culpepper, the Vikings' 250-pound virtual rookie, who saw them through their last start, 24-17, against tenacious Detroit.
In their offense a year ago, the Vikings had Moss, Carter and Smith, but not Culpepper, so they dropped out of the playoffs when Warner prevailed by a familiar Ram score, 49-37.
Culpepper makes things different, bringing in not only quarterback speed and size but also an alert presence that deepens the workload for every defense.
He has Minnesota on the road to the NFL's only 14-2 finish this season.
DROPS DID IT: Although the Ram defense finally registered a touchdown shutout last week, the Ram offense lost its best chance to regain its old invincibility when, in the first quarter, Warner's first two downfield thrusts ended in dropped passes by wide receivers Az-Zahir Hakim and Torry Holt.
Warner and running back Marshall Faulk, though struggling through injuries, were playing football about well as they ever have.
Warner was zipping his passes with what seemed to be his usual accuracy, and Faulk, whose shoulder injury bothered him increasingly as the game wore on, was a threat on every play.
But just then, in an uncalled-for sequence, first Hakim and then Holt dropped well-thrown passes, and the air went out of the Rams.
In Warner's comeback game, what the Rams had needed most was an early touchdown or two to restore that old feeling of irresistible accomplishment.
Instead, they lost the football, then their confidence, then their skill level, then the game.
MIND GOES FIRST: By the second half in Carolina, Warner, the NFL's great quarterback of the last two seasons, seemed dazed.
He was clearly not in control of his psyche and, because of the lingering effects of his little-finger fracture, not really in control of the football.
More than that, during his long layoff, his mind had slowed down.
In October, Warner was the fastest thinker on every field.
During his six-week convalescence, however, defensive players caught up mentally, then surpassed him. And in Carolina Sunday, when the Panther defense reached a season peak, Warner played like a man just out of training camp.
As the Rams' MVP quarterback stepped back to look for Faulk, Holt, Hakim or Isaac Bruce in the maze of fast-moving Carolina defensive players, it must have seemed to him that everyone else was playing at warp speed.
He might have struggled on to win if Holt and Hakim had held onto those two first-quarter passes; but subsequently, he couldn't lift a demoralized team because he was out of it himself.
Eventually, he will be the old Warner again, which, for the Rams, will be enough only if, meantime, their defense holds up.
FIEDLER'S GAME: Of the league's surprise teams this season, none has been more surprising to American Conference opponents than the Miami Dolphins, who are 10-3 and a likely champion of the Eastern Division, even after losing a Super Bowl coach, Jimmy Johnson, and an all-time passer, Dan Marino. More surprising, the Dolphins are doing it with a losing coach, Dave Wannstedt, who was 41-57 in six seasons at Chicago, and an Ivy League passer, Jay Fiedler.
Fiedler bounced back from an injury layoff to throw three touchdown passes last Sunday in Buffalo, of all places, and in December, no less, as the Dolphins astonishingly routed the Bills, 33-6.
How could the Miami quarterback do that when the St. Louis quarterback couldn't?
First, Fiedler had suffered a shoulder injury, which, unlike a passer's hand fracture, courage can render moot.
Second, Miami is a running team and Fiedler threw only 21 times in Buffalo, completing 13.
And third, psychologically, Fiedler knows he can rely on a powerful defense, unlike Warner, who must always think in terms of outscoring everybody.
NFL CRAPSHOOT: The crapshoot that kicking has become this year calls for changes that the league should but might not consider.
In large numbers, great football players keep losing because of the inconsistencies of the soccer players their teams hire.