Bernie Miklasz

Rams coach Jeff Fisher maintains that the Rams are closing the gap in the NFC West.

That opinion isn't based on win-loss record. Last season the Rams went 4-1-1 in division games; this year they were 1-5.

Here's what I think:

There's no right or wrong answer here.

It's difficult to make an accurate assessment, because there was one huge difference between last season and 2013 in the Rams' clashes against division rivals:

Quarterback Sam Bradford.

Bradford started all six division games in 2012. He started the first two NFC West games this season, leading the Rams back from an 11-point deficit to beat Arizona, then playing poorly (as did the entire team) in a 35-11 blowout loss to San Francisco.

So in the eight division games started by Bradford over the past two years before he went down with a knee injury that ended his 2013 season, the Rams went 5-2-1.

In the four division games started by backup QB Kellen Clemens this season, the Rams went 0-4. They certainly should have come away with a victory over Seattle at home on Oct. 28, but Clemens had one of his worst games of the season. And despite thoroughly outplaying the Seahawks the Rams lost 14-9.

In his eight games against the NFC West defenses over the past two seasons Bradford threw 10 touchdown passes with six interceptions. His passer rating was 82.

In his four games vs. the NFC West this year Clemens threw two touchdown passes and was intercepted seven times. His passer rating was 55.

We could also point out another difference; last season the Rams posted two victories over an Arizona team that suffered from horrible play at quarterback. And two of Bradford's 2012 division wins were over Arizona.

The Cardinals went out last offseason and got veteran QB Carson Palmer, who definitely enhanced the capability of the AZ offense.

Yes, but the Rams defeated Palmer and the Cardinals with Bradford at quarterback in the season opener this year.

With Clemens starting the rematch the Rams lost by 20, with the Cardinals intercepting Clemens twice. Not that we should put the blame on him; the Rams defense was awful in that game.

We could go around in circles on this. But clearly the Rams had more of a chance at success against NFC West foes with Bradford at quarterback. This isn't an opinion; the facts and the numbers prove it.

NFC West teams play such fierce defense, it's very hard to beat them with a one-dimensional offense. At some point against the Cardinals, ***** and Seahawks you have to make some plays in the air.

Bradford was able to do that. Clemens couldn't. And in the one division game the Rams should have taken this year, they pounded the Seahawks for 200 yards rushing. But Clemens completed only 15 of 31 passes in that Oct. 28 game, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Rams were at the Seattle 1-yard line with a chance to win but Clemens got intercepted in the end zone at the end of the game.

With Clemens at QB, NFC West defenses moved up their strong safety to crash the Rams' running game. They had little fear of getting burned with a downfield throw. Bradford isn't an elite quarterback, but he could take advantage of defenses that put extra defenders in the box to stop the run.

The “closing the gap” debate can't be settled, really.

If Bradford had started all of the division games this season, we'd have a lot more to go on.

But the fact is, when Bradford started against NFC West rivals over the last two seasons the Rams were 5-2-1. And when Bradford didn't play, the Rams didn't win an NFC West game.

Moving On …

Just a quickie follow-up on penalties: Good teams, like Seattle, can overcome them. The Seahawks finished with the most penalties in the league this season. But mediocre teams, like the Rams, can't overcome too many penalties in a game.

This season when the Rams were penalized eight or more times in a game their record was 2-6. Over the last two seasons, the Rams were 5-10-1 when assessed with eight penalties or more.

All of the nonsensical talk about how good it is to see the Rams “standing up” to tough teams completely ignores the bottom-line damage caused by too many penalties. Playing hard, tenacious, physical football is good. Dumb penalties are bad.

Finally …

Here are some notes on the Rams at Seahawks game sent our way by Trevor Jones, assistant editor of Pro Football Focus:

TE Jared Cook was the only Ram offensive player to have a plus grade.

Rams guards Chris Williams and Shelley Smith gave up a combined 12 quarterback pressures. The rest of the team gave up three pressures.

Zac Stacy took 53 of the Rams' 55 snaps at RB.

Despite completing 12 of his 15 attempts in the middle of the field between zero and nine yards, Kellen Clemens received a negative grade in that area.

Clemens was only blitzed on six of his 33 dropbacks.

Clemens attempted one pass beyond 20 yards.

The Rams' receivers did decent work against esteemed Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, who finished with a negative grade for his pass coverage.

Rams rookie WR Stedman Bailey continued his impressive late-season play by catching passes against four different Seattle defenders.

Rams defensive end Robert Quinn put up his sixth-highest game grade of the season.

(Bernie note: Quinn finished the season as PFF's highest-graded pass rusher among 4-3 defensive ends. His 91 QB pressures were 10 more than any 4-3 defensive end in the league. Quinn finished with 19 sacks, 21 QB hits and 51 hurries. PFF also ranked Quinn No. 3 among 4-3 defensive ends in run defense this season.)

All three Rams starting linebackers had negative grades against the run.

In six pass-rush snaps, Rams rookie OLB Alec Ogletree had four QB hurries.

Seattle WR Golden Tate caught eight of the nine passes thrown his way including all four on Rams CB Trumaine Johnson.

Rams safety Rodney McLeod finished with a positive grade.

As a team, the Rams committed eight special teams penalties including three from rookie Ray-Ray Armstrong.

Thanks for reading ... and Happy New Year!

— Bernie