Wednesday, January 17, 2007

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Through five games, the Rams sat at 4-1 and had an important date with the Seahawks set for Oct. 15.

As the final game before the bye week, St. Louis hoped to continue its three game winning streak, carry momentum into the bye and put itself in position to win the NFC West Division.

Seattle was coming off a bye of its own, but would be without star running back Shaun Alexander. The Rams run defense, which had been up and down to that point of the season, was in good position to have a solid outing in Alexander’s absence.

Meanwhile, the offense had begun to find itself in the previous weeks and seemed set for another strong performance.

What once was a tale of two halves changed into a tale of two minutes in the most frantic of finishes in a Rams season full of them.

With the Rams trailing 27-21 and 2:54 to play, defensive end Leonard Little came up with a huge play for the second consecutive week. This time, he forced Seattle running back Maurice Morris to fumble as the Seahawks were attempting to run the ball and run out the clock.

Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy fell on the ball and the Rams had new life at their 7 with a timeout and the two minute warning in tow.

That situation eventually led to a third down play in which quarterback Marc Bulger hit receiver Shaun McDonald for a 28-yard gain. Following a false start penalty on left guard Todd Steussie, the Rams had a second-and-15 at their 33.

Coach Scott Linehan called Crush X7 Pump, a play designed to isolate receivers on safeties. In this case, it was Holt on Seattle free safety Michael Boulware. Bulger pump faked and Holt made a quick jab move that he would say later wasn’t one of his best. The offensive line gave Bulger plenty of time to throw and he floated a deep pass over Holt’s left shoulder with Boulware close behind. Holt reached back and grabbed at the ball, but couldn’t haul it in directly.

Holt’s momentum carried him forward and the ball went backward as Holt reached back with his right hand and hauled it in. Boulware fell to the ground and Holt raced in for an astonishing 67-yard touchdown. Kicker Jeff Wilkins booted the extra point to give the Rams a 28-27 lead.

It was a play that could have been THE play for the Rams. The type of play that could spur the Rams on to bigger and better things. Unfortunately, time was not on their side this time around.

There was a healthy 1:44 left in the game when St. Louis kicked the ball back to Seattle. For a team that has played every play through the end of every game this season, nobody knows better than the Rams about having to finish a game out.

Seattle’s drive started at its 17, but a pair of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck passes netted 33 yards in just 38 seconds to put the ball at the 50 with a minute to play. Fullback Mack Strong picked up 10 yards and Hasselbeck hit Deion Branch for a 9-yard gain, giving the Seahawks the ball at the Rams’ 31.

Following Strong’s second run, the Seahawks hustled back to the line of scrimmage to try to spike the ball and stop the clock for Brown to attempt the field goal. As the Seahawks lined up, though, a flag was thrown for illegal formation because they had a wideout in the backfield leaving only six players on the line of scrimmage. The Rams came running off the sideline in celebration thinking that the offensive penalty would cause a 10-second runoff since the Seahawks were out of timeouts and thus the game was over.

After some confusion, referee Ed Hochuli explained that there is no runoff for an illegal formation even though the clock was running when the penalty was committed. Josh Brown, who had a career long of 58 and had easily connected from 49 yards earlier in the fourth quarter, pounded the ball through the uprights from 54 yards away as time expired for the victory.

The controversial loss was disappointing for the Rams as it ended their three-game winning streak and gave them an extra week to have to think about it.

“The gods were shining on us again today,” Holt said. “But it shined on them more.”

After an additional week to think about the loss, the Rams came back after the bye with perhaps their toughest task of the year on the horizon. The schedule was only going to get more difficult and it all started with a game at San Diego, perhaps the best team in the NFL, on Oct. 29.

After six close games that almost all came down to the final play or series, this was the first time the Rams weren’t in it at the end. San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson proved to be too much to handle and the Chargers spent most of the day in the Rams backfield.

Still, there was a chance in the second half for the Rams to be in it at the end.

Just as it appeared the Rams had wrested momentum away from the Chargers and were seemingly on the verge of tying a game they had trailed the whole way, the turnovers that had gone their way so many times bounced the other way.

With running back Steven Jackson on the sideline and 9:15 to go in the third quarter, the Rams defense had figured out how to stop San Diego and the offense had been moving the ball well.

On first-and-10 at San Diego’s 29, quarterback Marc Bulger handed the ball to Davis who burst off the left side for a gain of 4, but as Davis attempted to spin away for extra yards, Chargers defensive end Jacques Cesaire knocked the ball loose.

Safety Marlon McCree jumped on the ball and raced down the right sideline for a 79-yard touchdown. What could have become a 14-14 tie suddenly became a 21-7 lead for the Chargers and the Rams never came closer than that 14-point deficit.

“We knew mistakes, any turnovers were going to hurt us,” Bulger said. “We were conscious of that. We only turned it over once; unfortunately it went for a touchdown.”

That turnover changed the momentum and the face of the game for San Diego, but Tomlinson did the rest. Whether it be a long touchdown run, a key third down reception or an onside kick recovery, Tomlinson did a little of everything for the Chargers.

By the time his day was over, Tomlinson had compiled some eye popping numbers. Tomlinson tallied 183 yards on 25 carries with a pair of touchdowns, three catches for 57 yards with a touchdown and even recovered an onside kick in the fourth quarter.

The 38-24 loss was the team’s second in a row and dropped it to 4-3 on the season. The following week brought another AFC West opponent to St. Louis, this time in the form of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Kansas City boasted another tough challenge in running back Larry Johnson.. The Rams had used an opportunistic, turnover-creating defense to get off to their hot start, but that formula worked against the Rams when they played the Chiefs.

Using a three-takeaway differential, another powerful rushing attack and a little help from the officials, the Chiefs ran past the Rams 31-17.

Despite the three turnovers and zero takeaways, the Rams found themselves in position to tie and possibly win the game as late as the fourth quarter. After the defense came up with a stop near the end of the third, the Rams took over at their 18.

Trailing 24-17 in the fourth quarter, quarterback Marc Bulger and Co. promptly began marching down the field. St. Louis reached the Kansas City 26 and seemed poised to break in for the tying score.

With that field position and room to work with, right tackle Alex Barron was flagged for a pair of false start penalties that cost the Rams 10 yards. Instead of second-and-1 and plenty of possibilities, St. Louis had second-and-11 and passing on the brain.

On third-and-11, Bulger hit receiver Isaac Bruce for an apparent first down as Bruce ran another of his pinpoint hook routes. As Bruce turned to make the play, though, cornerback Ty Law had hold of the 8 and the 0 on Bruce’s jersey. When Law released for fear of a penalty, he fell to the ground.

Bruce grabbed the ball and had a first down inside Kansas City’s 20. But a flag came out from the back judge. To most, it appeared to be a holding call on Law, but the official ruled that Bruce had pushed off and gained an advantage. A huge first down suddenly became a 10-yard penalty and the Rams had to settle for a pooch punt.

“It’s all based on judgment,” Linehan said. “There are calls that go for you and against you. In this case, it went against us pretty significantly at that point.”

That killed any momentum and hopes of a comeback as the Rams dropped their third in a row and evened their record at 4-4.

At .500 and hoping to get back on track, the Rams faced two difficult road tests, first a trip to Seattle to try to avenge the earlier loss.

While this meeting wasn’t quite as dramatic as the first, it wasn’t far off. Unfortunately for the Rams, the result was the same.

Brown booted a 38-yard field goal with nine seconds left for the final margin after a series of unfortunate events led to the Rams’ demise.

Trailing 21-16 with 8:19 to play, the Rams began a march toward the end zone that had all the makings of another big drive the team had in the first meeting.

This time the drive was more drawn out but the scoring play was no less spectacular. After Bulger picked through Seattle’s defense to get to the 14-yard line, coach Scott Linehan called for a draw to running back Steven Jackson out of the shotgun.

Jackson took the handoff with a big hole on the right side. Jackson burst through the line and dragged a pile of about five Seahawks and some Rams with him into the end zone for a 22-21 lead.

But, as Jackson and the Rams tried to disengage to celebrate the score, Jackson had his helmet ripped off by a Seattle defender. The Rams’ offensive line hustled to his defense and attempted to protect its running back.

Unfortunately for the Rams, the only flag that came out resulted in a 15-yard personal foul penalty on center Richie Incognito to be enforced on the kickoff.

The Rams went for a two-point conversion and after converting initially, lost the points because of a holding penalty. The ensuing attempt failed and the Rams had a 22-21 lead, but a precarious lead at best considering the field position that Seattle was almost certain to get.

“We all make mistakes, but you can’t make mistakes in a critical time in the game that will effect field position,” said Linehan. “When you have a team like Seattle with a short field, it can cost you and in that case it did.”

Indeed it did. Kicking into a heavy wind, Jeff Wilkins didn’t get all of it and Seattle’s Josh Scobey returned a kick that came from the St. Louis 15 for 33 yards to the St. Louis 49.

Four plays later, Brown was in field goal range and split the uprights with nine seconds left.

The loss was the fourth in a row for the Rams and dropped them to 4-5 on the season with a date in Carolina to come.

After losing cornerback Travis Fisher for the season to a broken forearm, rookie Tye Hill made his first start the next week against the Panthers at Ericsson Stadium.

But that game would become what Linehan later called the “low point” of the season as the offense found no rhythm and the defense couldn’t come up with plays big enough to make up for it.

Although the Rams were in the game until the end, they lost 15-0.Even in the face of the adversity brought on by a five-game losing streak, the Rams found a silver lining.

Linehan would make one of the most important decisions of his young head coaching career. It was a move that would pay off for the Rams down the stretch.