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Rams limp into finale against division rival

©Associated Press

December 30, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- It's the end of the line for the defending NFC champions, a month earlier than they had expected.

The Rams can go out on a positive note tonight against the playoff-bound 49ers. No matter what happens, they will have a disappointing sub-.500 record to think about all offseason after their 14-2 dominance in 2001.

"It's rough, but you have to realize that we are professionals," receiver Isaac Bruce said. "We get paid to play 16 games, and this is our 16th game.

The 49ers have what the Rams owned for two of the past three seasons: the NFC West title.

"We certainly anticipated this game maybe coming down to the division championship, and I think that's what ABC felt," San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci said. "But injuries can change everything."

The Rams lost their first five games before winning five in a row. But injuries to quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk, defensive back Aeneas Williams and offensive tackle Orlando Pace (all Pro Bowl players last season) finished them.

"The team that's going to win the Super Bowl this year is the healthiest team," receiver Troy Edwards said. "If you don't have healthy players, you just can't compete, and we had ... the most injuries I've seen all my life.

"But life is all about adversity, and you've got to deal with it."

Mariucci has sympathy for the Rams' plight.

"Every team is just a handful of injuries away from being a completely different team," Mariucci said. "Nobody really has enough depth right now because the talent is spread so relatively evenly."

This still is a rivalry.

The 49ers won 17 in a row from 1990-98. Then the Rams won six in a row before San Francisco won 37-13 this season.

Rams coach Mike Martz is serious enough about this game that he's not shutting down Faulk and Pace for the season. He wanted to start experienced backup quarterback Jamie Martin, too, ahead of unknown Scott Covington, even if Martin has not won this season.

Backup Tim Rattay likely will play at quarterback for the 49ers, although Jeff Garcia will start.

"Even though to some people it's a meaningless game, it's still a Monday night game that's a division game," 49ers defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said.

49ers (10-5) at Rams (6-9)

OF NOTE: San Francisco, the NFC West champion, hosts a first-round playoff game this weekend win or lose. So the Niners could rest some key players such as QB Jeff Garcia and WR Terrell Owens. The Rams probably are eager to just get the season over with, while the Niners probably are making postseason preparations. This will be a chance to see some of each team's younger talent.

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