EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The only things missing from last season's meetings between the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams were black and white television broadcasts and the booming voice of NFL Films' John Facenda.
In two games spanning almost 10 full quarters, the Rams and Niners stood toe to toe and exchanged haymakers, neither side willing to stay down on the mat until Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein booted a winning field goal with 26 seconds left in overtime of the second meeting.
“I think we were both right at home playing a slugfest and one team came out on top, but they were both awesome games to be a part of,” Rams defensive end Chris Long said. “They really were. They were a lot of fun. It was good, old-fashioned football. You don't see as much of it these days.”
In a survey of the Rams' locker room, the word "fun" has come up a lot this week when discussing last year's games against the 49ers. Of course, the Rams got a tie and a win out of those meetings.
The 49ers don't recall those games quite as fondly.
“When you don't have the result -- the winning result -- that's what you're striving for,” San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That's the goal every week. How can you win your next game, that game being the most important game of the season, and that's every single week.”
For whatever reason, the Rams emerged in 2012 as the one team ready and capable to stand up to the NFC West bully that was the 49ers.
It seems like it's been ages since the Rams went to San Francisco. Alex Smith left that Week 10 game with a concussion and Colin Kaepernick took over. From there, the Niners went 5-1 in regular-season games against teams not from St. Louis. They came within a single completion of winning the Super Bowl with Kaepernick in the lineup.
That success was there against every opponent, except the Rams, who were 1-0-1 against the Kaepernick-led Niners.
Over the course of 10 quarters, you'd be hard-pressed to find two more evenly matched teams. The Rams outscored San Francisco 40-37 and outgained them 751-680 in total yards. The teams were even in the turnover battle and the Rams held the ball for just 1 minute, 35 seconds more.
So, why did it seem as if the Rams had the Niners' number? Why was Rams coach Jeff Fisher able to outmaneuver Harbaugh?
Attitude, for starters. The Rams openly admit that although they get up for every game, they treated both games against the reigning kings of the division a little differently.
“When you look at it on film, it was surprising the way they were moving people around, but when they played us they weren't able to get that accomplished,” Rams defensive tackle Kendall Langford said. “I think that speaks volumes about the guys we have here in our locker room and on our defense. It was not today, not with us. We took that mentality and ran with it.”
The Rams also showed the ability to find answers to the questions San Francisco posed schematically.
While other teams frantically searched for solutions to the zone-read attack that Kaepernick brought to the table, the Rams found ways to at least slow him down and force a key mistake. Yes, Kaepernick ripped off a 50-yard gain in the second meeting, but he also tossed an errant pitch that the Rams recovered for a touchdown.
Instead of sitting back and waiting for Kaepernick & Co. to dictate the tempo, the Rams came up ready to be aggressive and attack, making Kaepernick pay every time he left the pocket.
On the other side of the ball, the Rams showed a willingness to do the thing other teams wouldn't against the Niners: run the ball. The Rams averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in the two games, but they stuck to it, attempting 64 runs and keeping the Niners honest.
By the time the Rams completed their comeback to win the second meeting, frustration was evident for both teams but even more so for the Niners.
“When you play 10 quarters against a team in a season, there's going to be a lot of frustration on both sides," middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I know we felt that pressure that we didn't win that one out in the Bay [Area]. We felt like we had a couple opportunities to and didn't capitalize and then the one here we were able to get a great drive at the end there to get into overtime.”
Entering Thursday night's game, there's little doubt some of that frustration in San Francisco has carried over. Harbaugh and Kaepernick seemed a bit on edge when asked about last year's failures to overcome the Rams in conference calls with the St. Louis media.
Add that to the injuries to key players such as linebacker Patrick Willis, the absence of pass-rusher Aldon Smith, and the fact that the Niners have to travel to St. Louis on a short week after an embarrassing home loss to Indianapolis, and you have a recipe that would make for an angry outfit.
Of course, the Rams are coming off an awful performance in Dallas, but a performance Fisher said would go away the moment he put on the film of last season's games against the Niners. Instead of a sour taste from last year's meetings, the Rams gained something more valuable: confidence.
“We did a good job against them last year and I'm sure they're going to come out and have something to say about that on Thursday night,” Long said. “We are talking about two teams that probably are unhappy with the way they've gotten out of the gates. We expect more out of ourselves and I'm sure they expect more out of themselves and we'll give each other our best shots and at the end of it we'll see after 12 rounds, or however many rounds it takes, we'll see who's got the W.”
The Rams-Niners rivalry was once one of the league's most hotly contested. The Rams' recent failures had put it on ice until last season. Whether the pendulum has truly swung back to the Rams or if last season was an aberration will be determined Thursday night.