Niners can stick St. Louis psyche

The Rams are in disarray. Wasn't that the case when the 49ers met St. Louis the first time last season? Yes, it was. And burying the Rams then saddled them with an 0-5 start from which they never recovered. Both sides will tell you the first 2003 meeting doesn't mean as much this time around because it's only Week 2, but don't believe it. This is a chance for the Niners to bury the Rams early again, because a win on the turf in St. Louis will cause irreversible damage to the St. Louis psyche.

The Rams, you see, still think in their heads that they can own the Niners. Sure, the Niners ended St. Louis' six-game streak in the series with a 37-13 walloping in San Francisco last October, but the Rams had the final say in a meaningless season finale when they tied a team record with 28 fourth-quarter points to win the rematch going away.

That was kind of the Rams' way of saying, "see you next year." And sure enough, when next year came around, the majority of prognostications had the Rams supplanting the Niners as NFC West champions and seriously contending for their third trip to the Super Bowl in five years.

It also told the Rams that, even in a down year, they still had the Niners' number on the fast turf of the Edward Jones Dome, where they have beaten San Francisco four straight times now by 11 points or more.

But enough about the past. Sunday's game in St. Louis is all about the now, and the Rams suddenly need it worse than they could have imagined, particularly with Kurt Warner dazed and on the sidelines after last week's concussion, and Marc Bulger leading an offense that still will be wondering at kickoff exactly who it's third receiver is.

The Niners, after their huge blowout of the Bears in Week 1, are downplaying the significance, saying it's just one of 16 battles, which of course it is. Coach Dennis Erickson only would go so far to say, "It's important because it's within our division," but steered away from suggesting the game was anything bigger than that.

"That's why it's important, whether you play them the first game or the 16th game; if it's a division game it's important," Erickson said. "They've won it. We won it last year. Obviously, they're the favorites this year, so it's important. And the other thing is being able to play on the road and have some success on the road for us. I think any division game, any NFC game - and then you double that with a division game - are doubly important, there's no question about it."

But as far as sending a message, Erickson wasn't about to get into that. He is treading lightly over that kind or area at this early stage in his San Francisco tenure.

But if the Niners tread over the Rams on their home turf - which, from this vantage point, looks as though they have a tremendous opportunity to do Sunday - St. Louis will get the message that San Francisco now owns again what the Rams recently had in this matchup, along with the division supremacy that comes with it.

The Rams never recovered when the Niners sent them that message last year. Since it will be hitting so much closer to home Sunday, they won't this year, either.

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