ST. LOUIS (AP) -- This time last year, the St. Louis Rams were zeroing in on the first overall draft pick. The Kansas City Chiefs were just a little bit better.
Now, look at 'em.
Intrastate rivals who combined for five victories in 2009 have turned the standings upside down, leading their respective divisions heading into a rare meaningful December game. Thriving under second-year coaches, they're both in playoff-drive mode.
"The NFL, they say it changes quickly, and I think this year's a pretty good example," Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "It makes it fun and interesting, and that's why I think it's the best sport in the world and the best league in the world.
"You never really know what happens and nothing is given to any team."
Crowds have picked up this year for the Rams, so players aren't worried about crowd noise from across Interstate 70 bothering them.
"I think our fan base will be there loud and proud," running back Steven Jackson said. "I think everyone in the town, everyone in the state knows what's at stake."
Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo routinely refrains from using the "P" word, refusing to sneak a peek into the future lest a rapidly improving roster stumble in the present. Yet Wednesday afternoon, the overhead projector in the team meeting room proclaimed on a giant screen "NFC West Champions."
Probably just an attempt at positive thinking for a long-suffering franchise that's matched its victory total from the previous three seasons. Their coach believes that as long as they keep mistakes to a minimum, they can play with any team.
"It's not 'We've got a long way to go,"' Spagnuolo said. "It's 'If we can do this a little better and that a little better, we're right in the middle of it."'
Chiefs coach Todd Haley noted the similarities between the franchises, meeting for only the fifth time since the Rams moved to the Midwest in 1995. The franchises have met 11 times in the preseason since the Rams relocation, however, competing for the Governor's Cup.
"Things have been a little broke for a while," Haley said. "You're seeing progress from both teams, which is a good thing, and it should be a good game."
Both teams lost big-time last week, but so what? They still hold the cards.
The Chiefs (8-5) have a one-game lead in the AFC West over the Chargers, who beat them 31-0 last week, and finish with a trio of sub-.500 teams. They're seeking their first division title since 2003 and first playoff appearance since 2006 when they got clobbered by Indianapolis after securing a wild card berth.
"I'm not surprised with the way we've been playing," running back Thomas Jones said. "At the end of the day, every year's different. I've never looked at what a team has done the year before, because that really doesn't matter."
Maybe their resilience does.
The Chiefs fell behind 35-0 in the first half, a franchise record for biggest deficit, of an embarrassing blowout at Denver. Then they won their next three until flopping again last week, totaling only 67 yards, in one of the weakest offensive performances in team history.
With Brodie Croyle replacing Matt Cassel at quarterback, the Chiefs were 0 for 11 on third downs, passed for only 19 yards, punted eight times and had the ball for only 19:50.
"We're a young, developing team that's trying to become a good team, and I don't think that's going to be without the hiccups," Haley said. "It doesn't happen overnight."
The Rams (6-7) hold the tiebreaker over Seattle in the humdrum NFC West and two of the last three are at home, where they're 4-2.
"The fact we're still playing in big games in mid-December, I think that's really good for this team and this organization," rookie quarterback Sam Bradford said. "Hopefully, the games will only continue to get bigger."
St. Louis already has well distanced itself from last season's 1-15 disaster. Everyone realizes the implications, and believe they just have to take care of their own end.
"Being where we are in December, you have to relish the opportunity," middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "But I don't daydream. As soon as I think about anything else but Kansas City I'll get off track and be making mistakes all over the place."
The Rams are ignoring the Chiefs' lousy offensive showing last week and their injury situation at quarterback. Cassel could miss a second straight game after undergoing an emergency appendectomy and Haley said it might be a game-day decision.
St. Louis is concentrating on its own house while attempting to end a three-game trend of starting slow. The Rams have been outscored 30-0 in the first two possessions this season, and the variety of plays and personnel groupings during the opposition's scripted section is likely a factor.
"It is something we've looked long and hard at," defensive coordinator Ken Flajole said. "Sometimes they can get you a little bit off-balance."
If Cassel plays, it'll be only 11 days since the surgery.
"It's not a normal injury that a lot of us have experience with," Haley said.
"We're going to have to defer to the medical staff, trainers, him."
The Rams insist they're preparing for the system, and in any case they're more concerned with harnessing the NFL's top rushing attack. Jamaal Charles has 1,177 yards rushing and Jones is having a solid year with 766 yards as the backup, needing only 17 yards for 10,000 in his career.
St. Louis has allowed 100 or more yards rushing the last four games.
"If you're off at all or you let some of their misdirection stuff affect you, that's when they'll gash you," outside linebacker David Vobora said. "We know these last few weeks we haven't been as good as we want to be against the run and we're going to have to change that."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)