By Jim Thomas
Monday, Dec. 29 2008

ATLANTA They weren't proud of themselves. That doesn't happen when you've
lost 10 in a row and finish the year at 2-14. But their chins weren't down,

Playing an Atlanta team that came within a whisker Sunday of nailing down the
No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC, the Rams were 31-27 losers before a raucous
Georgia Dome crowd.

For the third week in a row, they had a chance to win in the closing seconds.
This time, Marc Bulger's fourth-and-10 pass from the Atlanta 37 was a tad too
tall for Donnie Avery, falling incomplete with 69 seconds remaining.

It marked the fourth time in the last five games that the Rams had lost by four
points or less.

"It says a lot," running back Steven Jackson said. "It says that guys want to
win, and guys are not laying down. These last three games here, I think we
should've won 'em all to be honest with you. We've got to learn how to
finish. We've got to learn how to put teams away. But once we do that, we're
going to be a special team. We're not that far away."

As a reference point, the Rams lost last season's finale 48-19 at Arizona to
complete a miserable 3-13 campaign. They were outscored 157-48 in the final
three games of '07. In their final three games this season, the Rams lost
fourth-quarter leads with 2:47 to go Dec. 14 against Seattle, with 1:22 to play
last week against San Francisco and with 3:41 to play Sunday against the

"It's night and day," Bulger said, comparing this year's team with last
season's. "I know we got our butts kicked a lot this year. But as Coach (Jim)
Haslett said, it's never been the (lack of) effort. Last year, you could maybe
have mentioned that. The heart.

"But the guys who were out there playing (Sunday) were doing everything they
possibly could to win this one. When teams are better than you, it shows in
the end.

"We've just got to maybe upgrade a little bit, get better, and be able to play
four quarters with these other teams."

For only the third time this season, the Rams scored 20 or more points. Jackson
rushed for 161 yards, the second-highest total of his NFL career. Tack on his
four catches for 54 yards, and Jackson's 215 yards from scrimmage was the
third-highest total in his career.

Despite operating behind a patchwork offensive line that was missing both
starting guards because of injury (Jacob Bell) and illness (Richie Incognito),
Bulger posted his second-best passer rating of the season (91.9) and third-best
yardage total (230).

"When Steven's going the way he can go, I think he changes the whole dynamic
for the game," Bulger said. "They had to bring their safeties down a ton to
compensate for him, and when they did that, we got one-on-one matchups."

The result was Torry Holt's best yardage total of the season 90, on six
catches and Avery's first touchdown catch since October.

But in the end, an old nemesis got the Rams run defense. Or lack thereof.
After a modest start, the Falcons' potent backfield tandem of Michael Turner
and Jerious Norwood got rolling. Atlanta ran for 192 yards in the second half
alone, including runs of 70 yards by Turner and 45 by Norwood in the fourth

"Norwood's very underrated," cornerback Ron Bartell said. "He's so fast and
explosive. And Michael Turner is what he is."

With the game tied 24-24, Bartell made an amazing recovery on Turner's 70-yard
scamper early in the fourth quarter, running the 244-pounder down from behind,
stripping the ball loose and then falling on it in the end zone for a touchback.

"We needed a couple of plays," Bartell said. "And it was at a critical time
because it would've been first-and-goal inside the 5. And then (Jonathan) Wade
comes back and makes another great play."

Wade's interception with just under 10 minutes to play gave St. Louis the ball
at the Atlanta 22. When the possession stalled at the Atlanta 9, Josh Brown's
27-yard field goal gave the Rams a 27-24 lead with 6:39 to play. Once again,
the Rams couldn't protect the lead. Norwood's 45-yard TD run six plays later
got Atlanta (11-5) over the top.

"Most of the big runs, I'm going to have to claim responsibility," linebacker
Pisa Tinoisamoa said. "I was over-aggressive. Ten out of 11 players did the
right thing, and I was that guy that one player who did wrong."

Regardless of who's to blame, Atlanta's 263-yard rushing total underscored the
Rams' need to get bigger and better on defense next season. Opposing teams ran
for 2,475 yards against St. Louis this season, the most rushing yards allowed
by the Rams in franchise history.

"We're not real big on defense, and it kind of showed up in that second half,"
Haslett said.

After Norwood's score, the Rams got as far as the Atlanta 29 as the clock wound
down. But on second-and-2, Bulger was sacked on a play when both Holt and Avery
were double covered. Passes on third down (for Dane Looker) and fourth down
(Avery) went off the receivers' fingertips.

Thus the Rams were finished for the game, and finished for the season. Is
Haslett now finished as Rams coach?

"I have no idea," Haslett told a reporter. "If you had a crystal ball, you
could tell me. But I don't know."