By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
12/29/2006


The Rams will gather Saturday night at the team hotel for the usual squad meeting. This particular confab, in downtown Minneapolis, is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. and last maybe 50 minutes.

Coach Scott Linehan may find it hard to hold his audience this time. Unless, of course, he's showing the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins on a big screen. That game kicks off at 7:05 p.m. Saturday.

"If it's on TV at the hotel, we'll all be watching," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "We get in before then, and will have meetings during it, but I'm sure the coaches will cut them short so we can watch it."

Alas, the team hotel in Minneapolis doesn't carry the NFL Network, which is televising the Redskins-Giants contest. But as of Thursday afternoon, the hotel was working to have some sort of NFL Network hookup.




The Redskins-Giants game is Step 1 in a four-step process that could get the Rams in the playoffs for the sixth time in eight seasons.

If the Giants win, the Rams are eliminated from postseason contention.

If the Giants lose or tie, there is hope. But the Rams (7-8) still would need to defeat Minnesota on Sunday, plus have Carolina and Atlanta lose or tie on Sunday to earn the last of six playoff berths in the NFC.

"Anything's possible the way the year's been going," defensive end Leonard Little said. "We were in the same position two years ago when we made the playoffs being 8-8, so it's liable to happen this year."

Actually, the Rams have been down similar roads a few times on the final day of the regular season since the move to St. Louis:

In 1995, the inaugural season for the club in St. Louis, the Rams (7-8) needed to defeat visiting Miami on Christmas Eve, and then have Minnesota (8-7), Atlanta (8-7), and Chicago (8-7) all lose. All four NFC teams would have ended 8-8, but the Rams would've won all tiebreakers and gotten in as a wild card.



But shortly after kickoff against Miami, the Rams learned they were eliminated because Atlanta had upset San Francisco. The Dolphins went on to defeat the Rams 41-22, in what turned out to be Don Shula's final regular-season game as an NFL head coach.

In 2000, again on Christmas Eve, the Rams had just defeated then-NFC West rival New Orleans 26-21. Many Rams players were still milling about the floor of the Superdome, others had gone into the locker room, when the word came: Chicago had beaten Detroit 23-20 on a career-long 54-yard field goal by Paul Edinger with 2 seconds remaining. The Detroit loss got the Rams into the playoffs as a wild-card team at 10-6.

In 2004, the Rams became only the seventh 8-8 team in NFL history to make the playoffs, defeating the New York Jets 32-29 on Jeff Wilkins' field goal in overtime. The Rams needed only a victory, and either a Minnesota loss or a Seattle loss to get in. A loss by Seattle, playing later in the afternoon, would make the Rams NFC West champs. A loss by Minnesota, playing at the same time as the Rams, would give St. Louis a wild-card berth.

Midway through the first half of the Rams-Jets game, coach Mike Martz ordered Edward Jones Dome officials to quit posting the Vikings score. Little matter. Rams players were getting constant updates from fans seated behind them via radio or cell phones. By late in regulation, the Rams knew the Vikings had lost to Washington. The Seahawks won later that day, so the Rams got in as a wild card.

It will take more for the Rams to get in this time than it did in 2004. In fact, the situation is identical to 1995, in the sense that the Rams must win while three teams fail to win.

"We have to prepare as if they're all going to lose," Bulger said. "Like I said many times before, we put ourselves in this situation. If we would've won one more game, we wouldn't have to worry about it."

As it is, Bulger will be watching Saturday night, hoping that things break the Rams' way.

For Little, "It really doesn't make a difference, because if the Giants lose or win, I'm still going to come out and play the same anyway."

So Little will go to bed Saturday night not knowing the outcome of that game?

"I'm going to know," Little said, laughing. "Somebody's going to tell me."

No matter what, running back Steven Jackson says he's not investing much emotionally in playoff possibilities.

"If it's meant for us to be in the playoffs, we'll be in," Jackson said. "If not, we're not. We're still going to go out and play hard. ... We still have a lot to play for."