John Madden
John Madden
Heading in opposite directions
By John Madden

The Outback Steakhouse Madden Cruiser makes its final regular season trip, as it heads to Missouri for a game between the St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night (ABC, 9:00 p.m. ET).

Marshall Faulk
Opposing defenses caught up with Faulk and the Rams this season.

I was talking with some people last Monday night about St. Louis, and I was saying that the Rams are one of the most amazing things that I've ever seen -- how quickly and how far they have fallen this season.

They were the team that I think, consensus before the season, would be the NFC pick to be in the Super Bowl. And consensus, again, would be the best team in their conference and probably the best team in all of football. And I thought that as well.

And then to go from the best team in football to a team that struggles to make a first down or get back to the line of scrimmage is just an amazing story. Now, I think all of this started with their loss in the Super Bowl to New England last February. I don't think they ever recovered from that and I don't think they were ever the same team.

Even before Kurt Warner got injured early in the season, I think there was something wrong or different with him. Marshall Faulk was kind of in and out, and they also had a problem at right offensive tackle. Their defense played pretty well last year, but they didn't play that well this season.

I think other teams' defenses caught up to their offense, too. For a long time, they were ahead of those defenses, and they were able to do some things to them with Warner and Faulk and Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. But those defenses caught up with them and kind of went ahead of 'em.

The Rams are playing a San Francisco team who will be in the playoffs and who has clinched their division, the NFC West. For whatever reason, 49ers' head coach Steve Mariucci takes a lot of heat. I think he does a heckuva job with his team.

I just don't know why Mariucci is criticized. There are 32 head coaches in the NFL and no matter how you break them down, Mariucci is one of the top 10 coaches in football and he has been for a period of time.

His team has had its injuries, too, but they've been able to win a lot of games. I don't think the 49ers are playing their best football right now, however. They did that back in the middle of the season and they have to get back to that with the playoffs coming up.

(Terrell) Owens is the best receiver in football. Heck, he may be the best player in football right now. He's just so darn big and strong and he can do a lot of things to you.

Terrell Owens is going to be a big part of that, whether it's in this game or in the playoffs. He missed last Saturday's win against Arizona because of a groin problem. Owens is the best receiver in football. Heck, he may be the best player in football right now. He's just so darn big and strong and he can do a lot of things to you. It's going to be important for San Francisco to get him back healthy and going again.

On one hand, you have St. Louis playing its last home game in not a disappointing season, but worse than a disappointing season. And on the other hand, you have the 49ers, who are going to the playoffs and they're trying to get guys healthy and they want to start playing some better football.

The NFC West:
The NFC West just hasn't been a good division this season. San Francisco is unbeaten in five games against teams from its division, going into the St. Louis game. Before the season started, this looked like one of the strong divisions in all of football. The Rams had been in the Super Bowl the year before, and the 49ers had been in the playoffs. The division was also getting Seattle in it this year because of realignment, and the Seahawks had Mike Holmgren as their head coach, so you think that that's going to be better. And then you had Arizona and you didn't think that was so good.

But then they start playing and St. Louis has a terrible season. Seattle's had a disappointing year and the Cardinals just aren't good -- only San Francisco gets in the playoffs. It's been a tough season for every team in the NFC West but the 49ers, and that has surprised me a little bit. I was expecting more from the NFC West.
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