ST. LOUIS -- Unlike the previous two seasons, Rams vs. Bucs is lacking that showdown feel.
St. Louis (8-1) has the best record in the NFL and Tampa Bay (4-5) is tied for third in the NFC Central. Despite a rash of injuries, the Rams are 10-point favorites to keep rolling tonight.
Then again, the Bucs are usually hiding in the weeds at this stage. They're looking at this game as the beginning of the stretch drive.
"I think when you play the best offense and the greatest show on turf you have to relish that opportunity as a defensive player," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "You have to beat the best to be the best."
The Bucs were 3-4 to begin last season, then won seven of their last nine. In 1999 they also started out 3-4, then lost only one of the last nine games en route to an appearance in the NFC championship game, which they lost to St. Louis, 11-6.
The Bucs also beat the Rams at their own game last December, winning a 38-35 shootout on Warrick Dunn's third touchdown with 48 seconds to go, prompting a massive defensive overhaul in St. Louis.
So, the Rams are definitely wary.
"They've had a tendency to do that over the past few years, to start out slow and then pick it up," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "We still know what they're capable of."
'D' still capable
Especially on defense, with Sapp & Co. still capable of dominating a game. Rams coach Mike Martz admires the Bucs' scheme so much he hired linebackers coach Lovie Smith away from Tampa Bay and named him defensive coordinator, plus drafted Adam Archuleta to become a John Lynch clone.
Smith tweaked the system a bit, quickly integrated eight new starters, and fortifying with a handful of players from Tampa Bay. Thus far the Rams have zoomed ahead of the Bucs with the No. 4 defense. Tampa Bay is No. 8.
Bucs coach Tony Dungy is an admirer of Smith.
"He's made some changes and put his own stamp on it," Dungy said. "It's really been impressive to see how those guys have grasped it."
At times, the Rams' defense has been the team's strong point, bailing out a top-ranked but error-prone offense that leads the NFL with 27 giveaways.
But tonight, their depth will be severely tested. End Leonard Little, among the league leaders with nine sacks, is out six weeks with a torn knee ligament that won't require surgery, Archuleta probably won't play because of a severely sprained ankle and rookie tackle Damione Lewis is out for the season with a broken foot.
Martz told players before practice Friday that they're all starters.
"We're prepared when things like this happen," tackle Chidi Ahanotu said.