Monday, November 14, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

After Sunday’s loss in Seattle dropped the Rams to 4-5 on the season, it became clear that the Seahawks have finally staked their claim to the NFC West Division title.

With a strong possibility that Seattle will claim the division based on its three-game lead and tiebreaker advantages over St. Louis, the Rams must now find an alternate path to the postseason.

That path will probably consist of a similar trail to the one the Rams had to travel last season when they sneaked in as a wild card at 8-8 while Seattle won the division at 9-7.

Considering the level of competition and amount of teams competing for a spot in the NFC, that task will be much more difficult than last season.

But coach Joe Vitt said the Rams aren’t ready to pack it in after their 31-16 loss to the Seahawks.

“When these guys came in today we didn’t put candles in the room, have organ music playing and violins and the Grim Reaper around the corner,” Vitt said. “We lost a football game yesterday through our own mistakes, through needless penalties, (we’ll) discuss them, coach them, be accountable for them and then we have to move on. That’s what it is. There is nothing I can do about the past except learn from it and come back here Wednesday. We get to go to practice; we don’t have to do anything. We have been doing this job since we were in seventh and eighth grade playing football. Now we are getting paid for it. Why should that change our approach? We get to play a game this weekend, I am excited about that.”

Vitt expressed that message to the team Monday morning, though that address was probably slightly more, ahem, colorful. So long as the team embraces that attitude, there is still a realistic possibility for the Rams to get back into the playoff hunt.

St. Louis’ schedule shapes up favorably for the final seven games. Heading into Monday night’s game feature Philadelphia against Dallas, the Rams’ final seven opponents have a combined record of 23-38 with only Dallas having a winning record.

The Rams also benefit from having the chance to play four teams that are still in position to reach the postseason with games remaining against the Cowboys, Eagles, Washington and Minnesota. Of those games, the Rams get Philadelphia and Washington at home. Wins in those games would not only boost the Rams’ record, but also give them a decided advantage were it to come down to tiebreakers.

“I don’t think we are in trouble,” free safety Mike Furrey said. “We still have seven games left. There is a long way to go. We have four out of seven at home. We are all right.”

It’s probably safe to say that eight wins simply won’t get it done this year as it did last. It’s also possible that nine wins would also fall short.

As it stands, there are about 12 teams with realistic playoff hopes. Four of those will be division winners with Seattle and Chicago having a good handle on their respective divisions. No matter who wins the other two spots, that leaves eight teams vying for two wild card tickets.

The NFC East has four legitimate contenders with Washington, Dallas, Philadelphia and the Giants all at .500 or better (before Monday night’s game). Still, that division has plenty of games remaining against each other and could cannibalize itself.

The NFC North has consistently been the worst division in the league and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which it gets more than the winner into the playoffs, though Minnesota appears to be rallying around quarterback Brad Johnson.

There is no division more that could change more than the NFC South in the final two months. It appears Carolina has separated some, but just when everyone thought Tampa Bay might go away, it pulled off a big win against Washington. Atlanta was also supposed to be a favorite and stunningly lost at home to Green Bay. This division, more than any other has plenty of games left within itself and that could do one of two things. It could mean the teams eat each other alive, leaving just the division champion to make the playoffs. Or it could separate the strong from the weak and have two teams with at least 10 wins.

With plenty of football left to play, though, the Rams have to do their part. If St. Louis doesn’t stop the bad penalties, allowing big plays and finding ways to not score in the red zone, it’s not going to have a chance to be playing in January.

“We have just got to come up and play our schedule,” receiver Isaac Bruce said. “Whoever comes up we have to go out and play, not worry about the next game. We can’t worry about the Seahawks. We have to worry about the Cardinals; I think that’s who we play next. It’s nothing that we can’t overcome.”

The Rams will return to practice Wednesday in hopes of finding ways to correct the many problems that plagued them Sunday in Seattle. They don’t have the luxury of playing mediocre football and it appears that they will need to win at least six games the rest of the way to punch a ticket to the playoffs.

“This is the best thing and the worst thing about the NFL, is next week,” defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. “Seattle has got to find a way to come back next week and win their game and we have to do the same thing. We have to come back next week to find a way to play better. Next week can’t get here quick enough. I can’t wait to get on the practice field to get better. We have a home game next week and we can make it not all right, but make it better by getting a win next week.”

As far as the division is concerned, it would take a minor miracle for the Rams to get back in the race. On paper, Seattle holds a three game lead in the division, but by virtue of its season sweep of the Rams, it essentially holds a four-game edge. In other words, the Rams will need to make up four games in the next seven.

Despite that overwhelming evidence to the contrary, quarterback Marc Bulger said he won’t discount the chances of getting back in it.

“So many things can happen,” Bulger said. “They obviously are playing well right now, but they will lose a couple just like we have. We have to start winning ball games. We have to put ourselves in position on the playoff spot.”

It doesn’t matter whether that spot comes by way of a divisional crown or a wild card. The Rams became the first 8-8 team to win a playoff game last season, going into Seattle in the first round and stealing a victory.

Of course, St. Louis lost the following week at Atlanta. In the NFL anything can happen in any game, but it can’t happen in the postseason if you don’t do enough to get there.

That’s where improving on the league’s 30th ranked defense and finding ways to score touchdowns instead of field goals comes into play. There are seven weeks to left to rectify those problems and no more team to worry about the past.

“This is what it is and it’s not going to change our approach, it’s not going to change our work habits, it’s not going to change our commitment, it’s not going to change the accountability factor,” Vitt said. “It’s not going to change any of those things. The fact of the matter is we have another game Sunday and we have to prepare and play for that and we will.”