By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Monday, Nov. 14 2005

The Rams lost any reasonable chance to win the NFC West on Sunday in Seattle.
But with seven games left to play, this is no time to pack it in and start
planning vacation trips in January and February.

Interim head coach Joe Vitt did everything in his power to stress that point
Monday, and he did so in vintage "Jersey Joe" style.

"When these guys came in the (meeting) room today, we didn't put candles in the
room, and have organ music playing, and violins, and the Grim Reaper around the
corner," Vitt said Monday.

Translation: Even at 4-5, all is not lost for the 2005 Rams.

On the one hand, the Rams' fourth division title in seven seasons appears out
of reach. At 7-2, Seattle could stumble down the stretch. But the Rams realize
that's a very long long shot.

"The way they're playing, that's going to be tough to see," wide receiver Torry
Holt said. "But I know one thing: what we can handle is our end of the deal."

On the other hand, even if the division title no longer is a realistic goal,
there are two wild-card playoff berths to be had in the NFC.

"We've got a whole lot to play for," defensive end Leonard Little said. "We
could win 11 games, go 11-5 or whatever."

The Rams would have to run the table over the rest of the regular season to
make that happen. Realistically speaking, the Rams probably must win six of
seven to earn their sixth playoff berth in seven seasons.

As quarterback Marc Bulger put it: "We don't have much margin for error
anymore. We've got to start winning games. If we don't win the division for
some reason, we've got to put ourselves in a position to get a (wild-card)
playoff spot."

Entering the Dallas-Philadelphia Monday night game, nine teams had better
records than St. Louis. Four of those nine probably will end up winning
division titles, leaving St. Louis the task of somehow moving ahead of four
other teams to earn a wild-card berth.

The task is daunting, but not impossible. For one, there are a whopping 17
head-to-head matches remaining among those nine teams currently ahead of St.
Louis. Somebody has to lose those games, which gives the Rams a chance to make
up ground if they can start stringing together victories.

But this year, it will take more than eight victories to grab a wild-card. Last
season, both Minnesota and the Rams claimed wild-card berths at 8-8 in what was
a very weak NFC. Records were deflated in the NFC because of a near-record
dominance by the AFC in inter-conference play. The AFC went 44-20 last season
against the NFC, and that .688 winning percentage was the second-highest for
the AFC in the 35 seasons since the AFL-NFL merger.

But the NFC is holding up much better against the AFC this season. The NFC has
a winning record in intra-conference play so far at 20-18. If that trend holds
over the final seven weeks of regular-season play, it will take at least nine
or 10 victories to earn a wild-card berth.

Since 1990, when the NFL expanded to a 12-team playoff format, with six teams
per conference, 10 victories has been the magic number for a wild-card berth.

In that span, 31 teams that didn't win their division finished with 10
victories. Twenty-eight of those 31 earned a wild-card berth. The only
exceptions were Miami in 2003, and San Francisco and Philadelphia in 1991.

Wild-card playoff chances dwindle to a 50-50 proposition for 9-7 teams since
1990. In that span, 51 teams that didn't win their division title finished with
9 victories. Only 26 of those 51 earned playoff berths; the other 25 were left
out in the cold. (It's 27 of 52 nine-victory teams, if you include Atlanta,
which earned a wild-card berth at 9-6-1 in 2002.)

To finish 10-6, the Rams must win six of their final seven games. The remaining
schedule is conducive to a strong finish, assuming the Rams can play with some
consistency. Beginning with Sunday's home game against Arizona (2-7), the Rams'
remaining opponents currently have a combined record of 24-39.

And two of the three toughest remaining games - Dec. 4 against Washington and
Dec. 18 against Philadelphia - are at the Edward Jones Dome, where the Rams are
46-11 since the start of the '99 season.

If the Rams take care of business at home, where they also play San Francisco
on Christmas Eve, and get something done at Houston Nov. 27 and at Minnesota
Dec. 11, that could make the regular-season finale Jan. 1 in Dallas very
meaningful.

If not, it could be a long, cold winter for the Rams.

"We still have goals we can achieve," wide receiver Dane Looker said. "Losing
to Seattle hurts. ... It puts us pretty far back in the race. But I think we've
proven in the past that anything can happen."