Bernie: Road win is a thing of beauty for Rams

Monday, December 6, 2010

GLENDALE, Ariz. By the time the Rams uncurled their fists and wiped the caked blood from their mouths, by the time they had iced themselved down and taken the X-rays and limped to the team buses, a gritty 19-6 victory over the Arizona Cardinals was firmly in their possession.

It was the kind of challenge that tests a team's resolve. The Rams were playing a bad team and got off to a slow start. But they never backed off. Not for one second, not for one inch. This performance may have been lacking in charisma and creativity, but the Rams took this game to the streets. And the Cardinals weren't going to beat them there.

"If you're a competitor and you take a shot and you get hit in the mouth," Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said, "you're going to get back up and give them your best shot on the next play."

And this is what maturing teams do: find a way to get it done.

The triumph over Arizona wasn't a work of art, that's for sure. The cinematic geniuses at NFL Films will have to apply all the touches to finesse this game-highlight video into something attractive.

But the way this win was achieved through Ram-tough willpower was sufficient to inspire perhaps the ultimate tribute from Rams general manager Billy Devaney. He reached into his cherished New Jersey heritage to pull a quote from his musical hero, Bruce Springsteen.

"I've got one thing to say about this win," a smiling Devaney began. "In the words of a very wise man from Jersey, 'Show a little faith, there's magic in the night. You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're all right. And that's all right with me.' I love the way our football team dug in and fought hard and came out of it with a win."

The lyrics cited by Devaney are from the Springsteen classic, "Thunder Road." And that works too. The Rams have gone to Denver and Arizona in consecutive weeks to pick up those elusive road wins. And these things weren't a beauty except for the outcome and the magnitude of what it means to the Rams.

Does anything else really matter?

After 6-42, 1-15, and all of those humiliating Sunday smackdowns, how exciting is this for the Rams and their fans, to watch a young team come of age? It's Dec. 6. There are only four regular-season games remaining on the Rams' schedule. And the Rams, 6-6, hold the tiebreaker over Seattle to lead the NFC West. This minor miracle is the result of a little magic, a little mayhem (the NFC West) and a lot of guys manning up.

Sunday we saw elements of Thunder Road in several areas.

The Rams' defense, shoved out of the way early, allowed two first-quarter field goals as Arizona went up 6-0. But the Rams made the Cardinals settle for three points at the end of the first two possessions. And after that? A shutout. Over the final three quarters, Arizona had no points, 99 yards and seven first downs. And over those final three quarters, Cardinals quarterbacks completed seven of 21 passes, got sacked four times, and were intercepted twice. The Rams knocked Derek Anderson and Max Hall out of the game with injuries, leaving the Cardinals to try and make a comeback with rookie John Skelton, who was making his NFL debut.

It was nasty stuff. Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole tormented Arizona with a set of gnarly blitzes designed to exploit the soft edges of the Cardinals' 'slide" pass protection. And it was effective enough to put two Arizona QBs out on a TKO.

There was Rams running back and established team leader Steven Jackson, who hammered away at the Arizona defense 28 times for 102 yards and the breakaway 27-yard gallop for a touchdown that put the Rams in complete command with a 16-6 lead. Jackson is on pace to come close or exceed his personal high of 346 rushing attempts in a season, which occurred in 2006. The Cardinals repeatedly wrestled Jackson to the ground, but they couldn't get him to wear down or back down. He broke tackles, broke the Cardinals' spirit. And you could see him on the sideline, imploring his teammates to fight on.

Bradford wasn't in his sharpest form. With the Rams leading by only three, he threw an awkward interception on the first series of the third quarter. But this is why the kid is special: After the INT, Bradford completed his next five passes, ran twice for positive yards and converted three third downs on important trips that produced a touchdown and a field goal. This is what the great ones do: make a mistake, and immediately erase it from their minds, then go make some big plays to win the game. Bradford has those qualities. And he absorbed some fierce shots from the Cardinals in this game, but never let it get to him. He was an image of strength and calm.

One of the smallest but toughest guys on the field, Danny Amendola, helped stake the Rams to outstanding field position by averaging 27 yards on three punt returns and 26 yards on three kickoff returns. Amendola also squirmed free for a 17-yard catch on the Rams' lone touchdown drive.

One of the biggest guys on the field, Rams right offensive tackle Jason Smith, went down in a pile of pain after spraining an ankle in the third quarter. He dragged himself back in three plays later, delivered a massive kick-out block and popped Jackson loose for the 27-yard TD run.

"From the foundation to the very beginning of his time here, that's what Coach has wanted," Smith said. "To have tough football players. To have a tough-minded team. And I thank God that they allow me to be a part of this team. I thought I was injured. But then you realize it's just pain. And when you are a part of something that's so special, you want to do everything you can to help. So you get back up. I'm not the only one. There are a lot of guys playing hurt, who have a tough mentality, who have the desire to do anything to help this team. We'll get up and play hurt. This is too special and important to miss."

The Rams are back on the road again next week, at New Orleans. The defending Super Bowl-champion Saints certainly are a more formidable opponent than Denver or Arizona. But don't count the Rams out when they take that ride. As Springsteen wrote in Thunder Road, "Climb in back, heaven's waiting down the tracks."

And that would be making the playoffs.

The emerging Rams have a chance to make it real.