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Rams season ends with one to grow on
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
MINNEAPOLIS — Scott Linehan was finishing off dinner Saturday night at Manny's, the noted Twin Cities steakhouse, when he learned the New York Giants had defeated Washington. The Rams thus were eliminated from playoff contention.
Despite all his talk to Rams players about staying focused and worrying only about what they can control, Linehan couldn't hide his disappointment.
"It took me about an hour to get over it myself," Linehan said.
But only an hour. By Sunday morning, when it was time to go about the day's business, Linehan was all about business. With nothing to play for, the Rams played like everything mattered. They registered their first blowout of the season in the final game of the season, racing to a 41-7 lead on Minnesota before coasting to a 41-21 victory.
"I was pretty proud that we came out and played like that," Linehan said afterward, eyes welling. "They weren't thinking about the disappointment. There was no letdown."
Most non-playoff teams can't wait for the season to end. The Rams played Sunday like they wanted to keep going for another month.
"No doubt," Linehan said. "That's the only disappointing thing as I stand here right now is that we can't keep playing. But we've learned some lessons there. You've got to take care of business during the year."
Winning the final three games of the season wasn't enough to overcome losing seven of eight from mid-October through mid-December.
"You just can't lose seven out of eight games," safety Corey Chavous said. "You lose seven out of eight games, you're putting yourself in a foxhole and it's hard to get out of there."
The Rams almost dug themselves out, but their 8-8 record was bested by the Giants' 8-8 because of a tiebreaker provision (better conference record).
"So it's disappointing," Chavous said. "There's a lot of guys in the locker room that are happy to have ended the season on a three-game winning streak. But we expected to do a lot more. Certainly the playoffs and the Super Bowl were our goal from the beginning of the year."
Even with that realistic view, Chavous couldn't help but wonder out loud.
"I really wish we could've gotten into the playoffs because I think we could've been a dangerous team," he said.
"We were two field goals away from being in the playoffs," said defensive back Ron Bartell, who intercepted two passes Sunday, returning the first for a touchdown. "I feel like we're hot right now. I think we would've made some noise if we were able to get in."
Actually, the Rams were just one field goal away. If Seattle's Josh Brown misses only one of his two game-winning kicks against the Rams this season, St. Louis is in the playoffs. But it didn't happen.
"Being 8-8 and missing the playoffs, you could think that the season was all for naught," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "But I think we found out a lot about our team and where we're headed."
If nothing else, the Rams discovered they have a beast in the backfield. Running back Steven Jackson closed out a breakout season with 142 yards rushing against Minnesota's top-ranked run defense. It was the first time in 28 games the Vikings had allowed a 100-yard rusher. Jackson also scored a career-high four touchdowns — three by land and one in the air.
"It was a great year, an exceptional year," Jackson said. "A year that I could build off of. Hopefully, we can put some years consecutively together and be a consistent running back."
Jackson finished with 1,528 yards rushing, the most for any back in Rams history not named Eric Dickerson. (Dickerson gained 2,105 yards in 1984; 1,821 in '86; and 1,808 in '83.) Add Jackson's 24 yards on two receptions and he finished as the NFL's yards from scrimmage champion in 2006 — with 2,334. He edged San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, who finished with 2,323.
After the game, Linehan read off some of Jackson's numbers to the team in the visitors' locker room in the Metrodome.
"And it wasn't so much just to glorify (Jackson) as an individual," Linehan said. "But I think the team should be proud of the fact a guy like Steven has been able to basically step out of the shadows of, say, a Marshall Faulk, and really take the team a little bit on his shoulders."
None of Jackson's rushing yards came easy Sunday. All day long, the Rams were pounding away at a Minnesota defense that crowded eight and nine players near the line of scrimmage.
"They packed it in," center Brett Romberg said. "And they had those big 'tunas' up front."
"That's what we call the big fellows," Romberg said. "Tunas."
Namely, Vikings defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams.
"But we had 39 (Jackson) behind us," Romberg said. "It's kind of hard to stop that guy."
It was kind of hard to stop Bartell as well. The second-year pro picked off the second pass of the game thrown by Minnesota rookie quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, jumping on an out route intended for Billy McMullen. Bartell returned the interception 38 yards for his first NFL touchdown, giving the Rams a 7-0 lead less than 2½ minutes into the game.
"It just set the tempo for the whole game," Linehan said.
And made sure there would be no letdown, even though there would be no playoffs for the Rams.