TEMPE, Ariz. -- No one expected the Rams to be looking up at the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West standings seven games into the season.
Yet after an 0-5 start, the Rams (2-5) are two games in back of the Cardinals (4-3) heading into today's game at Sun Devil Stadium. A victory over Arizona is the next essential step in St. Louis' uphill climb.
"There's no room for error for us. It's that simple," said Rams safety Adam Archuleta. "We can't lose any games if we want to go to the playoffs, with realignment and one less wild-card team."
Archuleta was in Tempe last weekend, while the Rams had a bye, to watch his alma mater, Arizona State, play Washington. He will have about 50 family members and friends in the stadium Sunday.
It's a meeting of a team that used to play in St. Louis -- the Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988 -- and a Rams team that moved from Los Angeles and took St. Louis to the Super Bowl two of the past three years.
There is a connection between the coaches, too. When Dave McGinnis nearly accepted the head coaching job with the Chicago Bears in January 1999, he had already asked Mike Martz to be his offensive coordinator.
"He called me the night before, and said he was going to accept the job," Martz said. "He just needed to work out the contract. I was all set."
McGinnis backed out at the last minute, and halfway through the next season he had moved up from defensive coordinator to head coach at Arizona. Martz moved up from offensive coordinator to head coach after Dick Vermeil's Rams won the 1999 Super Bowl.
Until this year, Martz certainly had the better of the two jobs. The Cardinals went 3-13 in 2000 and 7-9 last year.
This season, McGinnis had his team tied for first in the realigned NFC West before last week's 38-28 loss at San Francisco.
This game will go a long way toward determining how good the Cardinals are. Despite Arizona's better record, the Rams are favored.
"I'm sure they're coming in here to try to knock us out and to get themselves back into it," McGinnis said. "This is a very important game in the NFC West. We've got to do something to elevate ourselves back into contention in the division."
With Kurt Warner sidelined with a broken finger, and after backup Jamie Martin went down with a bruised knee, Marc Bulger became the quarterback and has held on to the job, even with Martin now available.
Warner's injury has meant more reliance on Marshall Faulk, a strategy that translated into victories over Oakland and Seattle.
Faulk's importance to the Rams' resurgence has not been limited to his performance on the field.
"Just take aside all the things he does physically for you -- the running and the catching and the protections, how smart he is -- he's got such tremendous leadership," Martz said. "He's the one who really gathered the team together, he and a couple of other guys, and said, 'Listen, enough's enough. Let's go."'
Faulk rushed for 158 yards in 28 carries in the team's victory against Oakland. In the win over Seattle, he gained 235 yards in 32 attempts, caught seven passes for 52 yards and scored four times.
"They're finding a lot of ways to get the ball to Marshall Faulk right now," McGinnis said.
Faulk is "the best running back in the game," Arizona defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said.
"Some backs do it with power. Some backs are quick. Some backs are fast," Vanden Bosch said. "He's got everything. You don't find the full combination of all the skills you want in a running back very often, and he's got everything. We need to get everybody to the ball to stop him. That's got to be our game plan."
Arizona's surprising defense leads the NFL in fewest yards per rushing attempt (3.5), but gave up big plays in allowing the 49ers a 31-7 halftime lead last weekend.
The Cardinals believe the Rams pose an equal challenge.
"Other than Warner, they've still got the same weapons they had when they were the most explosive offense probably ever in the NFL," Vanden Bosch said.
Martz knows a lot about Arizona's defense and its coordinator, Larry Marmie. When Marmie was head coach at Arizona State, Martz was his offensive coordinator. Martz is impressed with the way his former boss has the Cardinals playing.
"We won't see a better tackling defense than the Cardinals," Martz said. "They're so well-schooled in what they do, the fundamentals. That's why when the first guy gets there, he stays tackled. They do a great job of stuffing the run. They make you go the long road to get points."
If Arizona wins, the Cardinals would be above .500 halfway through the season for the first time since 1984.
"We've got to get back on the winning track," Jake Plummer said. "Everyone was writing St. Louis off at 0-5. But they've been there before. They've been in the Super Bowl. They know how to win, so we've got to take the right attitude and hopefully put a damper on any expectations they have on righting their ship."