Between the Ravens' brutal offensive style and the Rams' finesse and speed, an intriguing encounter is set for Sunday night's ESPN game at Edward Jones Dome.
"It's 'Old School' vs. 'The Greatest Show on Turf,'" said Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose team owns a two-game lead atop the AFC North. "They try to wear you out with their multiple formations and incessant throwing the ball. We try to wear you out another way. It's a great contrast that is going to make for great theater."
St. Louis is a seven-point favorite that has won its last 10 games at home and hasn't lost to an AFC opponent since Oct. 26, 1997, compiling a 16-5 mark against the AFC over the last five years. The Ravens' top-ranked running game specializes in pounding opponents as the lowest-ranked passing offense behind rookie quarterback Kyle Boller is essentially an afterthought.
The Rams rank first in total offense and first in passing offense with perhaps the top receiving tandem in the NFL, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, catching passes from Marc Bulger, the man who unseated former league MVP Kurt Warner.
"We've got to get our track shoes fitted and be ready to go," tight end Todd Heap said. Holt is the leading receiver in the league with 63 receptions for 978 yards and nine touchdowns. Bulger has completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,086 yards, 12 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 90.3 quarterback rating. Plus, former NFL MVP running back Marshall Faulk is set to return from a five-game hiatus caused by hand and knee injuries.
"They're supposed to be 'The Greatest Show on Turf,' so we're going to go up to St. Louis and find out," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We're not going in to be pretty. They know that. We come to play football."
It's critical that Baltimore cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Gary Baxter not allow Holt and Bruce to create separation and touchdowns. It's equally important to the Ravens' cause that Bulger, who has an 11-3 record as a starter, doesn't have an eternity to locate his two primary reads.
Bulger was sacked five times by the blitz packages of San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora in a 30-10 loss last week, so it will be interesting to watch if Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan follows suit. Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Peter Boulware could play major roles against tackles Kyle Turley and Orlando Pace to help the cornerbacks.
"Definitely, it's a personal challenge in front of the national spotlight," Baxter said. "They've got a lot of weapons. You've got to have pressure on a team like that or they'll pick you apart and run the score up real high." One way for Baltimore to keep the Rams from turning this game into a track meet is to control the football behind Lewis' authoritative runs.
He has 1,045 rushing yards, but had his string of consecutive 100-yard games halted at six last week against the Jaguars with a season-low 68 yards on 21 carries.
Lewis is averaging 5.6 yards a carry. Depleted by injuries to defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett and end Leonard Little, the Rams have small linebackers and surrender 4.6 yards per attempt.
"When I look at that number, I lick my chops," Lewis said. "I think my line does, too. It's like being a boxer. You just jab and jab. You're just trying to take their will, then you knock them out."
Although this seemed to fall short of true bulletin-board material, not surprisingly, the Rams are using Lewis' statements as motivation. "As a man, you feel like you've been challenged," hard-hitting Rams strong safety Adam Archuleta said. "He can puff his chest a little bit. Up to this point, he deserves it. He's got it all, really.
"He's a powerful guy. He's got speed, he's got moves. He's very difficult to tackle. He just runs with a lot of heart.
Lewis has rushed for 100 or more yards in six of the Ravens' seven games, including a single-game record 295 yards against the Cleveland Browns. "We are going to have to strap it up," Archuleta said. "We're going to have to be physical, and if we are not, he's going to have a heck of a day."
The Rams have proven they can shut down some of the NFL's elite running Backs, limiting Seattle's Shaun Alexander to 58 rushing yards, Green Bay's Ahman Green to 35 rushing yards and Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis to 42 rushing yards. Yet, the 49ers' Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow combined for 156 yards last week.
"I heard he is licking his chops about coming in here and running it up on us," Rams defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson said. "That's fine. Ahman Green was licking his chops when he came in here. Jerome Bettis was licking his chops. And they left licking wounds." The Ravens will attempt to take a few shots downfield toward Heap. The Rams allow 6.86 yards per passing attempt, but the noise in the dome could affect Baltimore.
"We need to play our type of game, which is run the ball, and we've got to take the vertical when it presents itself," Billick said. "Most importantly, we can't let them jump up the way they like to. If you let them get a couple touchdowns up, they're going to want to go up by four touchdowns."
If the Ravens manage to pull off an upset in a real ESPN drama decided by actual playmakers, those early forecasts about Baltimore being a year away from playoff contention might begin to lose their relevance.
"When we lost that first week to Pittsburgh, everybody wrote us off, 'Oh, the Steelers are going to win this,'" Ray Lewis said. "They're 2-6 right now, anyway you want to look at it, and we're leading our division.
"Anybody that wants to deal with us, we're on the schedule, come deal with us. Nobody ever thought the Ravens were going to be here. They didn't think we were going to be here in 2000, but guess what? We're back again."
Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.