BY JEFF GORDON
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
11/27/2006

By ending their five-game losing streak Sunday, the Rams gained an opportunity to save their season.

At 5-6, they are back in the middle of the NFC wild-card playoff “race.” They are in the pile with the team they just beat, the ***** (5-6), and a host of similarly ordinary teams.

The Rams gained additional life Sunday from the following developments:

* The Falcons (5-6) keeled over at home against the Saints 31-13. This game could live in infamy in Atlanta, given the horrific play by the Falcons' defense and receiving corps -– and Michael Vick’s single-finger salute to jeering fans. This team is NOT generating a good vibe.

* Somehow the Panthers (6-5) lost at Washington 17-13. Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme attempted 39 passing plays and netted just 163 yards. How does that happen?

* The Giants (6-5) led 21-0 at Tennessee with less than 10 minutes to play . . . and lost 24-21, as Titans rookie Vince Young rallied his team in epic fashion. (There’s no word on whether Pete Carroll sent Tom Coughlin a sympathy card.)

* The Eagles (5-6) succumbed, as you would expect, at Indianapolis on Sunday night. Donovan McNabb is out for the season, leaving Jeff Garcia and A.J. Feeley as the choices. Their 45-21 loss to the Colts doesn’t offer much hope for a miraculous finish.

The only pack team that helped itself Sunday was Minnesota, which outgunned hapless Arizona 31-26. Now the Vikings (5-6) have the right to feel more excited about their final five games.

Of course, there is difference between mathematical life, which the Rams currently enjoy, and LIFE life, which they must still earn.

Even in the feeble NFC, the Rams must play much better during their remaining games -– Arizona and Chicago, at Oakland, Washington and at Minnesota -– to earn a legitimate crack at the playoffs.

Scott Linehan’s decision to give up his play-calling and concentrate on his overall head coaching duties was a positive step. The continued brilliance of running back Steven Jackson was another positive Sunday, as were the timely defensive and special teams takeaways.

But three pressing issues will determine how the next five weeks play out:

1. Run defense. The loss of sturdy defensive end Victor Adeyanju further compromises a defense that CANNOT stop the run. San Francisco coach Mike Nolan let this defense off the hook by settling for a field goal on his final possession, but the Rams cannot expect to receive such charity every week.

Brandon Green is a decent pass-rush defensive end, but he won’t hold up against the run as Adeyanju’s primary replacement. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has his hands full with this crisis.

2. Offensive line. Right guard Adam Timmerman and right tackle Alex Barron are in their assigned spots, but the other three line slots have seen constant rotation. The demise of left tackle Orlando Pace put a hurt on this unit, as did the demise of Andy McCollum.

Richie Incognito is blossoming at center, but his sprained foot could be problematic. Suddenly, depth players Brett Romberg, Mark Setterstrom, Todd Steussie and Adam Goldberg are being counted on in the trenches.

3. Downfield passing. Offensive play-caller Greg Olson called some deep shots to Torry Holt, but they didn’t work. The intent is still there, although the Rams are quick to check down to Jackson in the flat in this passing scheme.

The execution has been lacking. It is very, very strange watching the Rams fail to stretch the opposing defenses. By upgrading their downfield passing, the Rams could make Jackson even more dangerous as a runner.

Of course, a big issue is pass protection. Given the depleted state of the offensive line, Olson would have to provide extra help for his front five in order to assure Marc Bulger the time needed to throw deep.

The Rams have a big opportunity to salvage their season during the next five weeks. But their challenges loom just as large.

Rallying to beat the ***** in the final seconds was a start . . . but it was just that, a start.

“It can go as far as we want it to go,” Holt observed. “I think we should definitely enjoy this and feel good about it, come back, watch film, see what we did to get this win, build on that, and just play confidently. We just have to continue to build as much as we can off this.”