By Jeff Gordon
STLtoday.com Sports Columnist
Monday, Nov. 07 2005

Halfway into the NFL season, we’re seeing serious separation on this side of
the league.

NFC powers like Atlanta, Carolina and Seattle are climbing upward. Doormats
like Arizona, San Francisco, New Orleans and Green Bay are sinking into the
abyss.

Despite the league’s best effort to maintain parity, the good teams and bad
teams are resisting the gravitational pull of the .500 mark.

So which direction will the Rams go?

We’ll get a pretty good idea this week as the Rams, 4-4 coming out of their bye
week, prepare for their trip to Seattle to face the 6-2 Seahawks.

If the Rams can’t score an upset in Seattle, the Seahawks will roll to the NFC
West title. Running back Shaun Alexander is bulldozing through opponents,
quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is throwing with confidence and coach Mike Holmgren
finally seems to have a winning program in place.

Coming out of their bye week, the Seahawks pounded out a 33-19 victory at
Arizona. Hasselbeck mostly handed off to Alexander, who ground out 173 yards on
25 carries.

Seattle’s West Coast offense is running with balance and precision, despite the
constant shuffling at wide receiver. “Matt and Shaun Alexander are true pros,”
offensive coordinator Gil Haskell told the Seattle Times. “When we talk to them
now, they know exactly what we're talking about. Today we were prepared. We
knew what we were doing and we executed it.

“Each year this offense has gotten better and better. They're smarter and
smarter, and now we've just got to build on it and keep getting better.”

If the Seahawks get to 7-2 -– and if the Rams fall to 4-5 -– the division race
will be over. Joe Vitt’s squad would have to move its focus to the wild-card
race, which is currently led by sturdy teams in the NFC East and NFC South.

In the East, the Giants (6-2) have stayed a step ahead of the Redskins (5-3)
and Cowboys (5-3). The Eagles (4-4) could still become a factor if coach Andy
Reid can clean up the Terrell Owens mess and somehow find a way to move his
team forward.

(Our suggestion: Lock T.O. in a room with Hugh Douglas and just see what
happens. I don’t believe taking Dr. Phil’s approach will resolve this
conflict.)

“It is tough losing a guy of his caliber, his ability, but I think we might be
better off,” Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb told ESPN.com after Sunday night’
s 17-10 loss to the Redskins. “I think what we did tonight was we showed that
we play well together. I think we also showed that when given the opportunity
guys can make plays for us. The guys in the locker room have to understand that
we win together and we lose together.”

In the South, Carolina (6-2) and Atlanta (6-2) look very, very solid. Tampa Bay
(5-3) appears to be falling back with Chris Simms at quarterback; the
Buccaneers offense, never flashy, has regressed since Brian Griese went down.

With the contenders separating from the pretenders, the Rams must finish
extremely well to get back into postseason play. The Rams must score pivotal
victories over their direct NFC rivals.

That starts with Seattle on Sunday. It will have to continue with later home
games with Washington and Philadelphia and it wraps up with what could be a
critical game at Dallas.

Of course, the Rams must also take care of business at home against also-rans
Arizona (2-6) and San Francisco (2-6). And those road games at Houston (1-7)
and Minnesota (3-5) also offer opportunities for advancement.

The opportunity to earn a playoff berth is still there for the Rams, despite
all their injuries, despite Mike Martz’s illness and despite the power struggle
within the front office.

But the key word is “earn.” There will be no backdoor route into the NFC
playoff bracket this season. There are too many really good and really bad
teams to allow that to happen.