ST. LOUIS - This is the kind of season the St. Louis Rams have endured: Rookie cornerback Ron Bartell didn't even dress for the first six games of the season and now he's preparing for his sixth straight start.
Attrition has exacted a toll on a team that will miss the playoffs for only the second time in seven seasons. With two games to go nine players are on injured reserve, including quarterback Marc Bulger, both cornerbacks, two starting linebackers and the starting tight end.
So guys like Bartell, a second-round pick, are learning on the job. And the team is suffering.
"I always saw myself contributing, even with all the ordeals I was going through early in the year, but I never thought I'd be starting pretty much half the season," Bartell said. "It's been a good year for me."
A very bad year, though, for the Rams (5-9), heading into the final two games. They've lost five of six and are braced for the possibility of rows and rows of empty seats in today's game against the even-more-downtrodden San Francisco 49ers (2-12).
"I hope it's exciting and loud, but I don't know, we haven't been playing well," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "Hopefully they'll still come out and watch us."
Home-field advantage isn't what it used to be for the Rams, 3-4 in the Edward Jones Dome heading into the home finale. They will try to avoid their first four-game losing streak at home since 1995. Without a raucous road crowd interfering, the offense was whistled for eight false starts in last week's one-point loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
That led to an early-week tantrum from interim coach Joe Vitt, winding up his guest host slot for ailing Mike Martz, that was highly critical of the offensive line. The former linebackers coach's animated, slang-filled news conferences have been a highlight of every game week, and in Monday's session he accused the line of being "soft."
Now, they're playing a meaningless game on Christmas Eve.
"We can't really think about that," wide receiver Torry Holt said. "I don't care if there are five people in the stands, I don't care if there is one TV camera or a couple of media people there to cover this event, we're trying to go out and win a ballgame.
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"We haven't won in a long time."
There's been no controversy in San Francisco, just a pile of losses. The 49ers enter with five rookie starters, a seven-game losing streak, and a good shot at the first overall pick in next year's draft.
They're tied with the Houston Texans for the worst record in the NFL, having dropped 12 of 13 overall since beating St. Louis to open the season, and they're likely to set a franchise record for fewest yards in a season.
Coach Mike Nolan, who's been fielding questions about drafting Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, believes his team is perhaps a season away from being a playoff contender, and hasn't seen any quit in his players. Evidence is last week's 10-9 loss at playoff-contending Jacksonville.
"They could have done that a long time ago, but I have not seen that at all," Nolan said. "With two weeks to go, you have to keep fighting on and I'm very hopeful that these last two weeks we can do that."
This year's first-rounder, quarterback Alex Smith, has taken his lumps with no touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in five starts. But he's glad he's playing.
"I still feel like I'd be going through these pains next year," Smith said. "In the offseason, when I go over all the film, I'm going to be pretty grateful that I got this experience and these reps, because I think it will make a lot of difference next year."
As for Sunday, well, at least the teams can lean on the long-standing rivalry developed when both teams were on the West Coast. Or not.
Many current Rams had no opinion about that. All they know is they're one of only two teams to lose to the 49ers this year.
"I don't get into all the rivalry things," middle linebacker Trev Faulk said. "It's our next opponent, I'm just focused on them just as I focused last week on Philly and every other game this year.
"I'm sure some of the older guys who have been here for a while, it might be a bigger deal to them."