St. Louis Left with Plenty to Play For
By Nick Wagoner
By this time of the NFL season, the playoff picture usually begins to crystallize. It doesn’t necessarily become clear, but people generally have an idea of who is a contender and who isn’t.
After St. Louis’ 45-17 loss to Green Bay at Lambeau Field on Monday night, the Rams seemed as lost as they have all season, falling to 5-6. It was their second consecutive blowout loss and left many wondering where they stand. Stunningly, there is still plenty left to play for.
So much left, actually, that quarterback Marc Bulger is almost in disbelief.
“It’s kind of funny, but I think we would still be in the playoffs right now,” Bulger said. “Whether that’s a good thing or not, who knows? If we can somehow fix some things and get on a roll, who knows what could happen in the playoffs.”
Seattle lost 38-9 to Buffalo at home Sunday, falling to 6-5. That puts the Seahawks one game ahead of the Rams in the NFC West Division, but they must continue to stay ahead, because St. Louis owns all possible tiebreakers against them.
As strange as it is with Seattle and St. Louis competing for the title of most consistently inconsistent, there is another important title still readily available to either: the NFC West.
The only thing clear about the NFC is that just about every team still has a mathematical shot at making the playoffs. San Francisco at 1-10 and Washington at 3-8 seem to be the only teams that have little to no chance of making it to the postseason.
Philadelphia has already clinched the NFC East Division with a 10-1 record. Atlanta is almost certain to clinch its playoff spot as early as next week with a 9-2 record. After those four teams have established where they stand that leaves one huge glut of teams vying for divisions and wild card spots alike.
There are 12 teams between 7-4 and 4-7 left in the NFC, holding out hope of making it to the playoffs.
Rams coach Mike Martz said he can’t worry about playoff scenarios with the team struggling as it is right now.
“I’m not concerned about that at this point, I’m really not,” Martz said. “I’m concerned about how well we’re playing. Right now, that’s insignificant to even think about that. We have just got to get this team playing better. If we do that, then we can take the next step.”
Getting better has to start soon, though. With five games left and four against opponents from the NFC, every game becomes more crucial. If it were to come down to it, and it is likely that there will be at least two teams with identical records come playoff time, record against NFC opponents is one of the main tiebreakers.
That means if the Rams can beat (in order) San Francisco, Carolina, Arizona and Philadelphia, it could go a long way toward earning a playoff berth. St. Louis goes on the road for the game against the Panthers and Cardinals, but will host the Eagles and *****, with the regular season finale Jan. 2 against the Jets. All of those games appear winnable, especially with the Eagles having their division wrapped up (of course, they could be battling the Falcons for homefield advantage).
At the top of the list of what needs fixing is the Rams’ inability to stop the run. Green Bay back Najeh Davenport gashed St. Louis for 178 yards on 19 carries for his first career 100-plus yard performance. He is not the first to do that this season, joining New Orleans’ Aaron Stecker, who had 106 yards rushing on Sept. 26.
Every week the Rams attempt to cure what ails the run defense, but defensive end Leonard Little said his team has yet to find the right medicine.
“I wish I had the answer to it,” Little said. “I don’t know what that answer is going to be. We look at film every week and try to adjust things to stop the run and we haven’t done it.”
In spite of the woes against the run, the Rams special teams did make some strides against Green Bay. They limited the Packers to 18 yards per kickoff return and dropped a pair of punts inside the 20. But, it seems, every time St. Louis solves a problem, another leak springs somewhere else.
So, how fast can the Rams plug those leaks? That question will determine where this season goes from here. There is plenty of football left and even more at stake.
“There’s a lot to play for,” Little said. “We are not out of anything. We could still make the playoffs with the way the NFC is going. We just have got to do better.”
At this point, it is clear there are many teams that have to do better. Whichever teams do it the fastest will get their shot on the NFL’s biggest stage.