Tuesday, December 28, 2004

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

The past two weeks have left the Rams searching for answers on what has gone wrong. The answers came this week with the return of two players and the early exit of a number of Eagles.

Quarterback Marc Bulger and running back Steven Jackson returned to action after two weeks on the sidelines with injuries. Their return and Philadelphia’s already locked up playoff spot made for a 20-7 win at Edward Jones Dome on Monday Night.

The win moves the Rams to 7-8 and gives them a continued glimmer of hope in the playoff picture. With one week left in the regular season, St. Louis sits in position to not only claim a playoff spot, but also win the NFC West Division.

Coach Mike Martz said he is stunned at the situation that is still available to the Rams.

“After all of the drama that we have been through this year, to be in a position to potentially be in the playoffs…how awesome is that, anyway?” Martz said. “We’re excited. We’ll show up next week and lay it all out there.”
Most Rams and fans remember 2000 when St. Louis got in after beating New Orleans and getting a late field goal by Chicago’s Paul Edinger to knock Detroit out of the playoffs in a game that was “meaningless” for the Bears. It could take another odd occurrence for the Rams to get in again, but there are a few possibilities.

To win the division, the Rams will need to win against the Jets next week and have Atlanta beat the Seahawks at Seattle. That would put both teams at 8-8 and the Rams hold the tiebreaker based on their two wins against the Seahawks.

Winning the division is not the only way the Rams can get into the playoffs. Minnesota is 8-7 and plays Washington next week. If the Vikings lose that game and the Rams win, then St. Louis would advance to the playoffs based on its better performance against NFC teams.

The most unlikely, but possible playoff scenario is a Rams’ win coupled with a tie between 7-8 Carolina and 7-8 New Orleans. Both teams have tiebreaker over the Rams based on head-to-head matchups.

Fortunately for St. Louis on Monday night things were made easier by Philadelphia’s lack of need to position itself in the playoffs. With the No. 1 seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs wrapped up, the Eagles rested many of their regulars and pulled the ones that did play early in the game.

Eagles’ coach Andy Reid said there is no right or wrong way to approach the end of a season when a team’s position is set.

“Well, you have to make a decision,” Reid said. “There have been some good ones that have gone this route and some bad ones. I don’t think there is an answer. I just look at past history of what has happened to this football team when I’ve been here and I made the decision to rest the guys.”

That, combined with the play of Jackson and Bulger, made for a relatively easy victory in a game St. Louis never trailed.

After his first career start on Dec. 5 against San Francisco, Jackson missed the next two games with an injured knee and the running game suffered. Upon his return against the Eagles, the running game took off, as it hadn’t in quite awhile.

The “fast and furious” Rams became the balanced Rams, running the ball 44 times and throwing it 28 times. St. Louis gained 419 yards, running and passing with equal aplomb, gaining 209 on the ground and 210 through the air.

Jackson finished with 148 yards on 24 carries and Bulger went 20-of-27 for 225 yards. The news wasn’t all good for the young running back, though. Jackson bruised his knee in the fourth quarter and hobbled off the field. He did not return and his status is uncertain for next week.

Martz said Jackson’s bruised knee came about for the same reason he injured it the first time, the turf. Jackson said he will have his knee looked at first thing Tuesday morning.

“I’m a little banged up right now,” Jackson said. “The turf is pretty bad. You’re taking two hits basically on every play. You get hit by the opponent and you get hit by the turf.”

The game started unlike any other the Rams had played this season. After 14 games of sticking to what it knows best, St. Louis hit the ground running. Ten, that’s right 10 straight running plays started the Rams first drive and it paid off handsomely.

“Whenever we’ve had the most success against Philadelphia, we have run the ball well,” Martz said. “I just felt like if we could stay committed to it, with all the blitzes and calls that they do…I didn’t think we would do that well, obviously. It wasn’t hard to do.”

Jackson was the main cog in the newfound ground success, getting six of the carries. The other four went to Marshall Faulk. Jackson gained 47 of the drive’s 73 yards, including a 28-yarder on the drive and capped it with a 6-yard burst up the middle for a touchdown. Kicker Jeff Wilkins’ extra point made it 7-0 St. Louis.

Playing with most of its starters on the bench because of injury or precaution of injury, Philadelphia managed to answer with a drive of its own.

Quarterback Donovan McNabb’s only series was similar to the Rams’ first drive, as McNabb handed off to running backs Dorsey Levens and Reno Mahe for most of the drive. He ended his night with a 7-yard touchdown toss to receiver Freddie Mitchell in the back of the endzone.

St. Louis started its next drive with another run by Jackson before Bulger hit receiver Torry Holt on a quick slant for 12 yards. When Bulger threw his first pass, there was 54 seconds left in the first quarter. The devotion to the run lasted for most of the game, especially as more Eagles’ starters made their way to the bench.

Jackson continued to grind in the second half, getting six carries to set up Bulger’s 7-yard touchdown pass to receiver Isaac Bruce for a 17-7 lead. Wilkins added a 29-yard field goal in the fourth quarter for the final margin.

After the game, Martz revealed that Bulger has been nursing a sore shoulder for most of the season, making his season all the more impressive. Bulger said he felt fine after the game.

“I think everyone in here…you don’t feel as good at the end of the year as you do at the beginning,” Bulger said. “That’s pretty much everyone in here.”

Perhaps worried about more injuries to starters after losing Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens last week, Philadelphia rested most of its defense and its entire starting offensive line on the bench for the majority of the game. Consequently, the Eagles struggled to get anything going, drawing 13 penalties and failing to get much going offensively.

The Rams held the Eagles to 155 yards of total offense and kept them off the scoreboard for the game’s final three quarters. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa led the way with four tackles and a fumble recovery.

Regardless of the personnel on the field for Philadelphia, the game meant everything to the Rams. For one more week, the Rams kept their playoff hopes alive.

Defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson said his team needs to stay focused on its future and not think about what might happen in other games.

“At the end of the day this is where we are,” Jackson said. “I don’t really think about the different scenarios, maybe I’m not smart enough to come up with all of these different scenarios. I do know this, though, if we win the game, we have a heck of a shot.”

St. Louis will get no more chances after next week, but with another win and a little luck, it could return to the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Stranger things have happened and, with as strange as the NFC has been all season, they might happen again.