SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -Marc Bulger and the St. Louis Rams already endured the longest season-opening winless streak in their franchise's 70-year history this fall. Their defense has struggled, their offense is injury-riddled and the coaching staff has been roundly criticized.
And the Rams won't even be the most dysfunctional team in Candlestick Park on Sunday.
St. Louis (1-8) actually is favored in its annual visit to face the San Francisco 49ers (2-7), who have lost seven straight with a horrific offense on pace to challenge several NFL marks for futility - the same pace held by the Rams until they scored 37 points last week.
Such numbers don't matter to Bulger, the former Pro Bowl MVP. His Rams still had plenty of their own problems while getting ready for latest rivalry game between California's first two NFL franchises, who have met twice a year since 1950 even after the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995.
``It's something I didn't understand, how big a rivalry it really was, especially in the L.A. days,'' said Bulger, who passed for 302 yards and two touchdowns in last week's win over New Orleans. ``I think we had their number in the late '90s, but they've kicked our butts the past couple of years.''
The 49ers have lost every game they've played since squeaking out a one-point win in St. Louis on Sept. 16, with opponents outscoring them by a jaw-dropping 110 points. Their problems grew in recent days with dissension between quarterback Alex Smith and coach Mike Nolan, who miscommunicated about the seriousness of Smith's arm injuries.
Trent Dilfer will start in Smith's place Sunday despite struggling in his three appearances this season after Smith separated his shoulder in late September.
Dilfer is among those who appreciate the history between the clubs after growing up in Northern California as a fan of 49ers quarterback John Brodie, whose No. 12 jersey he wears in tribute. So is Rams coach Scott Linehan.
``We don't forget about history around here,'' Linehan said. ``I watched many games between the L.A. Rams and the 49ers growing up, and the passion that those players had for those games, regardless of the records, always created a heck of a matchup. Tradition in the NFL and tradition in the rivalry has more to do with it than people give it credit for.''
Tradition might be just about all this matchup has to offer. San Francisco and St. Louis are at two low points in their recent histories, both essentially out of the playoff race and facing possible offseason overhauls.
With the 49ers seemingly headed to their fifth straight losing season, including three in a row with Nolan, the coach's future has been in question for the first time in his tenure. But even with the enormous responsibility put on Nolan by owner John York and his hands-on son, Jed, the coach claims he hasn't felt any heat inside the 49ers' training complex.
``They've been very supportive, and that's not a concern of mine,'' Nolan said. ``Do I need that (assurance)? Not really. I've been coaching all my life. I grew up around it. It's part of the profession, so that part doesn't motivate me. I'm motivated by trying to win.''
Though Nolan acknowledged a coaching staff on solid ground usually has greater impact on its players, he's been in enough tough situations over his two decades in the NFL to stay cool.
``If I was crumbling, you would have to worry about support or not,'' Nolan said. ``When the head coach is crumbling, don't even worry about the old vote of confidence. It really doesn't make a lot of difference.''
Linehan isn't crumbling either, despite widespread fan calls for his dismissal during St. Louis' 0-8 start. Some of those cries turned to cheers last week when the Rams posted an unlikely road win over the Saints.
``Regardless of the record, we are going to put together an inspired game plan,'' Linehan said. ``Players are going to be inspired to play, and records are out the window, as far as I'm concerned.''
Before beating the Saints, the Rams had an offense that made the 49ers' woeful unit look good. St. Louis had scored five points fewer than San Francisco through the season's first eight weeks while Bulger and running back Steven Jackson were hampered by injuries.
But Bulger and Jackson both are ready to go at Candlestick Park, where the quarterback has lost three of his four starts.
Bulger and Jackson also lost to the 49ers earlier this season despite outgaining the 49ers 392-186. Jeff Wilkins' last-minute field-goal attempt fell just short of the crossbar in San Francisco's 17-16 victory in St. Louis.
``I don't think it's a secret - we have to protect me a little better,'' said Bulger, sacked six times by the 49ers in the first meeting. ``We didn't finish in the red zone, and took a pounding. We have to get our running game going (and) get better protection.''

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