Rams look to right the ship in Tampa Bay
DEC 21, 2012 1:49p ET
Time to walk away with an ice pack on that bruised ego. The Minnesota Vikings’ rout at the Ed last Sunday did two things: It snapped the Rams’ three-game winning streak, and it made the navy and gold’s playoff outlook more slim than the possibility of seeing Mark Sanchez at a luau during Pro Bowl week. Here’s what must happen Sunday for St. Louis to enter Week 17 with a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season:
*The Rams must beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
*The Baltimore Ravens must beat the New York Giants.
*The Houston Texans must beat the Vikings.
*The New Orleans Saints must beat the Dallas Cowboys.
*The Arizona Cardinals must beat the Chicago Bears.
So … got a ticket to Vegas? You may have better odds trying to knock out Juan Manuel Marquez.
Still, a few moral victories are left on this buffet. There’s the chance to finish with a winning record for the first time since going 12-4 in 2003. There’s the chance to finish undefeated in the NFC West – if the Rams complete the simple task of topping the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field in Week 17.
But first, a final jaunt south. A date awaits with the battered Bucs, losers of four consecutive games. If last week was the salsa with a hottie, this is awkward chitchat and smashing toes with a wallflower. Hey, whatever gets you to the finish line.
On to Week 16…
How will the Rams handle their new normal?
Probably well. If you hang around Rams Park long enough, you pick up on a few things. Mainly, focus around the building is like cruising through the Holland Tunnel: Contained and directed ahead.
Consider some comments from the week, when asked about a post-“In the Hunt” world …
Coach Jeff Fisher: “Well, (players) just come to work. We were actually talking about working hard and improving every day and trying to finish things up strong. There is a slim chance. You’d rather have slim chance over no chance at all.”
Quarterback Sam Bradford: “Obviously, last year we were in a pretty rough situation. It happened a lot earlier than this when we realized the playoffs were probably out of reach. But everyone last year continued to work. Obviously, our chances – if there are any – are very slim at this point, but we could still end up with a winning record. We could still end up undefeated in the division. There are still things out there that we can accomplish.”
Running back Steven Jackson: “Guys are going to go out and play for each other, regardless of what may happen or what may transpire to postseason.”
Those are only words, of course, as punchless as the screen on which they appear. Actions have more bite. Still, there will be psychological intrigue with the Rams’ visit to Tampa. Will they recover from the loss with a victory, like after defeats to the Detroit Lions in Week 1 and the Chicago Bears in Week 3 and the New York Jets in Week 11? Or will the loss to the Vikings represent a longer slide’s beginning, like after falling to the Miami Dolphins in Week 6?
Their focus. Their call.
How will the Rams fare against the Buccaneers’ bipolar ways?
One side is sweet, the other sour. Check out this bizarre personality profile: Tampa Bay allows an NFL-worst 310.6 passing yards per game, but it owns the league’s best rush defense by giving up 83.3 yards per game. That’s like Usain Bolt sprinting the 100-meter dash with concrete bricks as cleats.
Predictably, the Bucs’ tale of two faces could either help or hurt the Rams. St. Louis has lived odd cases of on-again, off-again production as well. The Rams have scored no more than seven points in the first half in each of their past three games, a stretch that includes shutouts by San Francisco and Buffalo before halftime.
There could be a dent in the Bucs’ armor, though. The New Orleans Saints earned 149 yards on the ground in a 41-0 laugher last Sunday. Jackson, fresh off passing 10,000 career-rushing yards last week, averages 91 yards in three career games against Tampa Bay.
Which Bucs defense will do the most damage – either to the Rams or itself? That’s the question to study. St. Louis has the skill to exploit a vulnerable unit. Whether Bradford is given time to do so is another question.
What will happen?
So the dance with playoff visions is done. Kill the music. Take a needle to the balloons. Enjoy one last swig of your drink and drive your date home.
Sure, the Rams stole a few steps with a girl out of their league. It has been written in this space before, but it’s true: It was a breath of fresh air that they were in contention this late at all.
Hold your breath for the five-step postseason plan, if you desire. But you’d have a better chance at strapping a saddle on a shooting star. There’s always next year … and doesn’t that line sound familiar?
I digress. After a four-game winning streak from Weeks 8 through 11, the Bucs have sunk faster than their attendance totals. The Rams may not be in the postseason hunt any longer. But they still have a stronger rudder than their hosts.
Pick: Rams 23, Buccaneers 10
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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