BY JEFF GORDON
STLtoday.com Sports Columnist
Tuesday, Sep. 20 2005

The only predictable thing about the NFL this season is its unpredictability.

Happy and unhappy surprises have marked the first two weeks of the season. On
Monday night, for instance, did Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells have any
inkling that his late 13-0 lead over the previously punchless Washington
Redskins could vanish?

“When they hit that fourth-and-15, I knew we were in trouble,” Parcells said.
“We have to learn to close the show.”

Who knew that Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell -– who has seemed washed up for
a couple years now -– would spring to life with two long touchdown passes to
Santana Moss?

“Both touchdowns came on the same play,” Cowboys safety Roy Williams said. “I
don't know what happened. I just saw Moss blazing down the seam.”

Look around the NFC and try to make sense of what has happened to date. The New
York Giants, dreadful a season ago, have scored two very impressive victories.

The Minnesota Vikings, viewed as a darkhorse postseason contender by many
experts, have suffered two lopsided losses.

The 2-0 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back from the dead in the NFC South. But Brett
Favre’s Green Bay Packers are 0-2 after losing at home to the so-so Cleveland
Browns.

The Detroit Lions have had a great game and a horrible one. The Chicago Bears
can say the same. So can the Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, New
Orleans Saints and Cowboys.

“These kind of losses are big when you think you have the game in hand,”
Parcells said Monday night. “Those kind of losses can carry over if you let
them.”

The Redskins are 2-0, having edged their first two opponents by a 23-20 margin.
The Falcons have split two similarly close games.

The Arizona Cardinals, the NFC West favorite in the eyes of many, are 0-2 -– a
game back of the 1-1 *****, who have allowed a league-worst 67 points in two
games.

In this chaotic environment, the Rams can legitimately feel good about
splitting their first two road games and coming home with a 1-1 record.

No harm has been done. No ground has been lost in the NFC West, where three
teams are tied for first place at 1-1.

No key players have suffered serious injuries, such as the knee injury that
eradicated top Packers receiver Javon Walker.

As expected, Steven Jackson and Kevin Curtis have become big-time offensive
weapons, giving quarterback Marc Bulger more quality options than a season ago.
As expected, Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne have solidified the Rams
linebacker corps.

As expected, Jimmy Kennedy’s progress has strengthened the middle of the
defensive line, where Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis have also made some
progress. As expected, right defensive end Brandon Green and Anthony Hargrove
are providing a nice counterbalance to Leonard Little on the other side.

Not surprisingly, the Rams secondary still appears vulnerable -– due to
injuries and inexperience.

After two weeks, two X-factors remain:


1. Will the special teams be a liability, as they were in Game 1? Or will they
finally become competent, as we saw in Game 2?

2. Will the offensive line hold up, with right tackle being filled by committee
and right guard Adam Timmerman finally showing his age?


Otherwise, I believe the Rams are fairly well defined. They will need
consistent pressure on quarterbacks to prevent teams from exploiting their
secondary. That will be the challenge for the next 14 games. The defensive back
shuffle we saw Sunday will continue all season.

The front seven, barring serious injuries, will be far more effective at
stopping the run than in ’04. A healthier Adam Archuleta at safety will help
that, too.

On offense, the Rams will score a lot of points IF they get consistent
blocking. Overall, then, the Rams will win more games than they lose IF the
special teams don’t give away games like they did in Week 1.

Where do they fit in the NFC hierarchy? Somewhere behind the Eagles and
Panthers, the two proven favorites, and somewhere ahead of longshots like the
Cardinals, *****, Bears and Saints.

The Giants, Cowboys, Redskins, Buccaneers, Seahawks, Falcons, Lions, Packers .
. . who really knows how those teams will end up, based on what we have seen so
far?

That is where the playoff race will be won or lost. The Rams will be somewhere
in the middle of it.