ST. LOUIS (AP) -- There's big trouble in paradise, yet you'd never know it from listening to the St. Louis Rams' rookie coach.
The defending Super Bowl champions are in survival mode, having lost five of seven heading into Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. The game once appeared to be a marquee matchup of NFC powers, and only the Vikings (11-2), who can wrap up the NFC Central with a win or a Tampa Bay loss against Miami, are living up to the billing.
But Mike Martz, whose team might have to win their last three games just to make the playoffs, still acts like a guy whose team is setting the pace.
Never mind that the Rams (8-5) are coming off a terrible offensive performance, and carrying a three-game losing streak at home. This week he's been confident, almost cocky.
"It's like this thing is fractured in pieces, and it's not," Martz said. "No, we're not very far away at all."
The way Martz sees it, the only thing the Rams have to fear is themselves. He gives almost no credit to the Carolina Panthers for holding the NFL's No. 1 offense without a touchdown in a 16-3 loss, pointing to seven turnovers as the real reason and all but absolving Kurt Warner of blame.
Warner, the NFL's MVP last year, threw a career-worst four interceptions in his first action after missing 5 1/2 games with a broken little finger on his throwing hand.
Martz had a similarly rosy outlook the previous two weeks after losses to the Saints and Redskins, saying whatever was ailing the team would be corrected. After another week of failure, he's even more certain, for some reason.
"It's really not about what you're seeing (on defense) or the team you're playing," Martz said. "It never has been. It's about us and what we do."
He bristles at the notion teams have finally figured out how to ground the Rams offense.
"If we couldn't get a first down, then that would really be a blow," Martz said. "'Man oh man, what we're doing is not right, we're not good enough, we don't have good enough players, woe is me and all that kind of garbage.' That's not the issue at all."
And he's not interested in making concessions to defenses devoted to taking away the Rams' big-play game.
"You can do what you want," Martz said. "It's just execution, that's all it comes down to. No, I don't like being patient."
Martz has extra incentive to knock the Vikings down a peg. Minnesota coach Dennis Green is co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee, and he spearheaded the move to eliminate the Rams' group celebration, known as the Bob 'n Weave.
"I feel very strongly that anything that's extra in the game, I think, is a little bit of an in-your-face to your opponent," Green said. "As competitors, I don't think that's a necessary part of the game."
Though Green said the ban on celebrations did not target the Rams, Martz took it personally.
"I'd like to bob and weave my way through this one," Martz said. "We'd like to beat these guys."
The Vikings have the NFL's best record and enter on a four-game winning streak. They have extra incentive to beat the Rams, who embarrassed them in the playoffs last year, rolling to a 49-17 lead in a 49-37 victory.
"I'm not one of those guys that's stuck in the past," Green said. "We started this year feeling confident we would be a better team."
Daunte Culpepper has been one of the big reasons. The 266-pound quarterback, in his first year as starter, quickly established a connection with Randy Moss and Cris Carter and is closing in on several team single-season passing records.
"I hope that's not the way football is going," Rams defensive tackle D'Marco Farr said. "We're going to have 300-pound quarterbacks, so I hate to see what the size of the linemen are going to be.
"But he doesn't look like he's 260 when he's running."
Instead of those three, Robert Smith is the player some of the Rams are most concerned about. Smith has five straight 100-yard games and leads the NFL with 1,391 yards rushing, and he's second in the NFL with 1,720 total yards.
"Culpepper is playing out of his mind right now," Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom said. "Everybody wants to talk about stopping Culpepper, Moss and Carter, but we really need to stop Robert Smith, take away the running game and make them one-dimensional."
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