Burwell: Rams have knack for failing
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BY BRYAN BURWELL, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist STLtoday.com


Whatever faint residue of giddy athletic good fortune was still floating around in the air for St. Louis sports fans was officially incinerated, obliterated and charred beyond any recognition on this dismal Sunday afternoon in the Arizona desert.

Is this the harsh comeuppance St. Louis sports fans must exchange for the uncanny joy ride of the baseball Cardinals' championship: a raw-faced, double slap-in-the-mug Sunday special that began with perhaps the most exasperating loss of the already intolerably exasperating season for the Rams and concluded with the firing of a hockey coach (Davis Payne, see you later)?

We'll let the Blues loyalists contemplate their own miserable circumstances. But the folks who are emotionally invested in the Rams surely must be wondering how much longer this football misfortune will last. The Rams could have been celebrating their second victory in a row but instead were trying to explain how a game they controlled all afternoon ended up as a 19-13 overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

This is what happens to football teams where winning is no longer a habit. Victories slip away. Opportunities are not seized. And there is always some strange thing that happens that shouldn't happen. We can spend the rest of the night and the rest of the week picking this loss apart for all the strategic decisions that were made. But it always comes down to this with teams that no longer know how to win on a consistent basis: You have to make plays.

When the Rams needed to make some crucial plays at the end of this game, they didn't. It's just that simple.

One minute the Rams were in control, about to walk off the field with a victory. The next minute, they were standing in the middle of the field doing a coin flip for overtime. A moment after that, they were staring into space, marching off the field with blank expressions while the Cardinals celebrated their OT victory.

"We had a chance to put that game away," said Chris Long.

"It's going to be tough watching the film of this one," said Sam Bradford.

"It's pretty difficult," said Steven Jackson. "I think we led pretty much the entire game, then let it get away, which is pretty unfortunate. ... It's too bad we couldn't pull it off."

The Rams have fallen to 1-7 midway through a season that was supposed have been the next logical step in a dramatic turnaround back to championship contention. And this loss was a prime example of why a team can have enough talent to make you believe that they should be so much better than their record, but then clearly justify why they are exactly what their record says they should be, which is the second worst team in pro football.

The Rams played the sort of 'situational football" that head coach Steve Spagnuolo knows is required of them now, even playing another flawed team like the 2-6 Cardinals, who were entering the game on a six-game losing streak. The plan was to play a game of field position. To shrink the game by controlling the clock, doing a good job on special teams and basically minimizing the damage Arizona's all-world wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald can inflict by keeping him off the field.

It pretty much worked for four quarters. But the problem with that strategy is that even though the Rams were in the lead for almost the entire game, the biggest lead of the afternoon was 13-6, which meant one little slip-up could turn the game around.

And with the Rams, one slip-up is always far too close at hand.

So the same Rams defense that was good enough to limit Cardinals running backs to 32 yards rushing and harass quarterback John Skelton into two safeties and keep Arizona out of the end zone for three and a half quarters, has one bad drive where it lets Skelton scramble like Roger Staubach, leaves a linebacker on Fitzgerald in the red zone, and the game is tied up.

And the slipping just kept on coming.

I won't second-guess punting to Patrick Peterson in overtime. Rams special teams had bottled him up all game long, and he just made one hell of a play to win the game. But there are some other moves that the Rams made that are worthy of the big second guess.

I won't even second guess why the Rams' offense couldn't gain one lousy yard in the fourth quarter with less than two minutes to play, twice.

The problem for the Rams on Sunday is the same problem for the Rams all season long. Execution. Good teams make plays. Bad ones don't. The Rams simply can't let a man block a game-winning field goal with four seconds left. Make the play. And the Rams can't continue to think that in these 'situational" games that three points in the red zone is a good thing. Make the play.

Is there enough talent on this team for things to be better than this? I'm not so sure any more. This is what a bad football team looks like. Field goals instead of touchdowns. No yards instead of one. Stop them all game except at the end when you need it most.

So halfway through the 2011 season, we have seen exactly what these Rams are, and we see it every week like a bad recurring dream.

They are the team that's just good enough to lose.