Wednesday, November 2, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Most teams in the NFL break the season down into quarters. That way, they can evaluate how they performed after each four-game period and figure out what they can do better in the next quarter.

But this Rams team didn’t have the luxury of waiting until the second quarter was over after falling into a three-game tailspin that had them sitting 2-4 with any hopes of making the playoffs hanging by the tiniest of threads.

Making the margin for error even smaller for games seven and eight was the fact that St. Louis would be without six starters, four of whom are Pro Bowlers and a head coach out for the year with a heart condition.

That’s why the Rams put a different spin on the quarterly look at the season. That’s why before the Oct. 23 game against New Orleans, St. Louis cut the quarter in half. It became a two-game season with thoughts of getting to 4-4 the only thing on the team’s mind.

Soon after the Rams’ 45-28 loss to Indianapolis on Oct. 17, interim head coach Joe Vitt made clear what the Rams needed to do if they wanted to get to the NFL’s promised land in January.

“We have two games to be .500 at the bye, and that was the focus,” Vitt said. “Let’s take one practice at a time. Let’s take one quarter at a time and let the chips fall. The guys the last two weeks, their practice habits, their intent, attention to detail, buying into what we’re trying to talk about, it’s been marvelous.”

That all sounded like a good idea, of course. Any time a team has some adversity it could go either way, but few teams have had to deal with the myriad problems the Rams had entering that game against the Saints.

St. Louis headed for that contest without the use of quarterback Marc Bulger, receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, left guard Claude Terrell, defensive end Leonard Little and cornerback Travis Fisher. Coach Mike Martz was receiving treatment for a heart condition called endocarditis and the Rams appeared to be a ship without a rudder.

Instead of complaining about their misfortune, the Rams did something about their situation. No starting quarterback, no superstar receivers, no stud pass rusher, no head coach? No problem.

The Rams found a way to get past New Orleans with a 28-17 win. It was the first sign that maybe things weren’t going to be so bad for a team that had been beaten up in the previous three games.

For those doubting the Rams’ will and spirit, it wasn’t quite the answer they were looking for, but it would suffice for the time being.

“I don’t know if it’s an attitude change, but everyone kind of knows that we are backed into a corner and nobody is giving us a chance,” Bulger said. “Usually that’s when we are at our best, when we aren’t expected to win or expected to play with people sometimes. You could take it for granted and get a little complacent but what this team did last year in the Seattle games and usually late in games we make a run at it and sometimes we fall a little short, but when we have our backs to the wall, we are at our best.”

St. Louis was certainly going to have to be at its best last week with 4-2 Jacksonville coming to town. The Jaguars were coming off wins against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and appeared poised for a relatively easy victory.

But the result didn’t meet the expectation. The Rams battled their way to a surprising 24-21 win, again without the services of the aforementioned players.

“Coming out this week and beating Jacksonville, they had a week to prepare for us, they had all of their stallions and we didn’t,” Holt said. “For our football team to go out there and play the way they played Sunday was absolutely fantastic.”

The Rams didn’t have time to worry about the status of Bulger or Holt or anyone else, the only thing that mattered was finding a way to.500. Of course, it’s not a glorious goal to have reaching 4-4, but it was the best St. Louis could hope for.

“If someone tells you (that) you have one game before bye week to win and your life will be beautiful, play that one game like your life depends on it,” defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. “And that’s what we did. We played one game and won that one game.

“No one felt sorry for themselves. We knew Jacksonville isn’t going to feel sorry for us. They didn’t come in saying ‘let’s ratchet it down some because they have some Hall of Famers who aren’t going to suit up.’ No, nobody really cares about the Rams. So the guys who were going to suit up took it upon themselves to play the best game they could possibly play against a very good, playoff football team. And that’s what happened; we won the game.”

The win meant a lot to a team in desperate need of being .500 at the bye. With Seattle doing all it can to take a lead in the NFC West Division and on a bye itself, the Rams couldn’t afford to fall another game back, especially with a huge game against the Seahawks coming up after the bye week.

There are two ways to look at this bye week. On one hand, the timing is perfect because it allows the Rams to get all of the aforementioned injured players back, the rest of the team to relax and recharge and the coaches a chance to find out as much about Seattle as possible.

“Doing what we have done the past two weeks has been big for us,” cornerback Ron Bartell said. “Hopefully when we get some guys back we can get to another level.”

On the other side of the fence, though, is the theory that the Rams will lose much needed momentum by taking this week off. There is no telling which way St. Louis will go from here, but it’s highly unlikely that theory holds much weight.

The extra time to relax and get players back will almost certainly give the Rams a shot in the arm. While Martin and other reserves did a nice job in place of the missing stars, the Rams have the potential to be a better, more balanced team such as the one that showed up in the first quarter against Indianapolis.

“I think that’s why we stressed the importance of that win yesterday,” Holt said. “Being able to go 4-4 into the bye, get a chance to get some rest, get our legs together, go away, flush your mind and go to work – we have two division games, a critical game against Seattle, where the rivalry has brewed and we are coming off a win and coming off a bye week. If we can go there and get a win, the sky is the limit.”

Indeed there will be plenty of opportunity for the Rams to make a run at the postseason if they can come off Qwest Field with a win on Nov. 13. Seattle plays Arizona on Sunday, a game that it will probably win.

That would put the Seahawks at 6-2 with the Rams trailing by a pair of games. Because of the parity in the NFC South and East this season, it could be extremely difficult for the Rams to steal a wild card spot. It seems that the teams that get those playoff tickets will have to finish at least 10-6, making the need to knock the Seahawks down a peg even more important.

There are, however, a couple of other factors that could help the Rams to keep an eye on in the second half of the season. First, Seattle’s schedule doesn’t have many cupcakes left. The Seahawks got off to a great start last year before a swoon and they still have to deal with the Giants, Eagles and Colts in addition to the Rams.

Also, St. Louis has a fairly favorable schedule that, other than the trip to Seattle, has it playing most of its difficult games at home. With a stretch after the Seahawks’ game that includes Arizona at home, at Houston, home against Washington and at Minnesota, there is a realistic chance to put together a big winning streak.

“I think it’s anybody’s guess,” Vitt said. “In the month of November, you separate the pretenders from the contenders. This is going to be a big month for us coming up. This is when you have to establish yourself and what your intent is. Are you going to be for real, or are you just waiting for the season to be over and run for the bus? I know what we’ll do. We’ll prepare hard, and we’ll have great intent.”

All of the preparation and intent in the world would probably have meant nothing were it not for the Rams’ victories the past two weeks. That doesn’t mean that anyone is ready to crown them Super Bowl champions, but at least now, all things are still possible.

“That was the key where we said by being 4-4 at the bye, you get yourself in position to get in position,” Vitt said. “That’s what we’ve done.”