Rams Regroup for Stretch Run
Monday, December 13, 2004
By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

The NFL, like no other league in any sport, is known for its parity. Take that to the next step and the perfect microcosm of that is this season.

With three weeks to go, the NFC playoff picture is as fuzzy as a big-screen television in rural Idaho. Just about any team can make it and, with a few exceptions, any team that is in position to make it now could drop out soon.

The Rams are the centerpiece of that picture with opportunities to go either way coming from all angles. Sitting at 6-7 after a 20-7 loss at Carolina on Sunday, there is, stunningly, plenty left to play for.

The loss featured seven turnovers, including six interceptions by quarterback Chris Chandler. Chandler started in place of the injured Marc Bulger, who is out with a sprained right shoulder. That problem alone makes the road ahead a difficult one for St. Louis to travel.

Despite the setback, coach Mike Martz remains unwavering in his confidence about what the Rams can do.

“I don’t know any other way, I don’t think any other way, that’s just my nature,” Martz said. “We just have to find a way to get it done, fix what’s broken and move on; get a short memory about this stuff. That’s what we are focusing on.”

That has been a prevailing attitude around this team for most of the season. Unfortunately, it seems when something gets fixed, something else seems to break.

Take Sunday’s game for example. If ever there was a microcosm of what has been typical of the Rams’ season, Sunday was it.

The Rams defense has been ranked near the bottom of the league for most of the season, but it had perhaps its best performance (non-San Francisco division) against the Panthers. Sure, the unit started out struggling by giving up a pair of early touchdowns. In the first quarter, Carolina marched the ball all over the field and it had 196 yards at the half.

Once the second quarter began, though, the Rams defense played like it had on only a few other occasions (see second half at Seattle) the rest of the way. The Panthers managed just a pair of field goals and St. Louis stayed within striking distance the rest of the way.

In years past, a defensive performance such as that would have been a telltale sign of a relatively easy victory for the Rams’ high-octane offense. Instead, it was the foil to one of the most miserable offensive outputs of Martz’s tenure.

Chandler almost completed more passes to Panthers than Rams. Running back Arlen Harris, in place of Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson, ran hard and played well, but didn’t quite have the burst to make any big plays.

In fact, St. Louis had just two big plays all day, one a 75-yard touchdown pass from Chandler to receiver Torry Holt and the other a nullified 52-yard score to receiver Isaac Bruce that was called back for holding.

That strange reversal of roles for the offense and defense could be the most frustrating thing.

“We’re all disappointed with the way we played that game, particularly on offense,” Martz said. “We did not play very well. We did not protect the quarterback. We just could not get things going offensively. To have that many turnovers and hold them to 20 points is kind of a miraculous job by the defense.”

It might not quite be a Christmas miracle, but it certainly was another step in the right direction for a seemingly improving defense. Of the Panthers’ seven opportunities off of turnovers, they were able to convert enough to manage 10 points. For a defense that has been much-maligned most of the season, that could be the biggest ray of hope.

As it stands now, the Rams would not be in the playoffs if they started today. That, however, means little with three games left to play. St. Louis’ best chance probably resides in its hopes for the NFC West Division title.

Seattle escaped Minnesota with a 27-23 win that put it at 7-6 and gave it a one-game lead on the Rams in the division. The Seahawks play at the New York Jets this week, followed by home games against Arizona and Atlanta.

The Rams, of course, play at Arizona this weekend, followed by home games against Philadelphia and the Jets. No matter how it breaks down, St. Louis must make up that one game on the Seahawks at some point in order to have a chance at the division.

For a shot at the wild card, the Rams would need the Panthers or Vikings to drop another game or two and win. None of that matters now, though. St. Louis must worry about itself first and foremost.

“You can say a lot of things,” safety Adam Archuleta said. “But at the end of the day it falls on the team.”