For those that had the energy to tune in to Sunday Night Football after the exhausting marathon that was the Rams’ 16-13 overtime win against the Niners earlier in the day, there was a graphic that flashed on the screen on multiple occasions that had to be quite satisfying.
During a game featuring Philadelphia and Dallas, the graphic featured three columns: one for the four teams leading their respective divisions, one for the two teams currently leading the race for the two wild card spots and one for the other teams that remain in the playoff picture.
While the Rams certainly would love to see their logo in the far left column, their mere presence in the graphic under teams in the hunt represents a large step forward for a team that has so rarely played meaningful December football since 2004.
Yet here they are, three quarters of the way through the 2012 season, the youngest team in the league sitting squarely in that perch looking to find a way to bust through and make a run at the postseason.
That possibility would not have existed had the Rams come up short Sunday against San Francisco.
“It’s exciting for our team,” defensive end
With the win, the Rams improved to 5-6-1 on the season and kept their unbeaten streak in the NFC West Division intact by moving to 4-0-1 against San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle.
Based on the way the Rams have approached building the foundation of their team, the success within the division is a good sign and a potential harbinger of things to come.
For the Rams to have no losses in the NFC West at this point in the season is a rare commodity, especially of late.
“I’m learning about it right now,” Long said. “Usually at this point, we were the opposite of undefeated in the division—winless. So it feels really good, it’s gratifying, but we have a lot of tough games coming up here and we can’t afford any mistakes.”
Indeed, it may be a bit premature to dive head first into playoff scenarios and ways in which the Rams can break down the postseason door for the first time since 2004.
Sunday’s win, however, at least left the door cracked, if it’s not completely open.
As the NFC currently stands, there are five teams – Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, Green Bay and Chicago – that are in prime position to nail down playoff spots. There is some room for fluctuation in that group but it would take something drastic for one of those franchises not to advance to January.
That would leave one playoff spot for a large cluster of teams with records ranging from 7-5 to 5-7. Clearly, that puts the Rams right in the middle of that group but also places them on the lower end of it.
Leading that race currently is Seattle at 7-5 and essentially controlling its own destiny after a big overtime win of its own Sunday at Chicago. The Seahawks play three of their final four at home with each of those games coming against division opponents, including the season finale against the Rams.
But things could complicate for Seattle should starting corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner not win their appeals following suspensions for performance enhancing drugs.
On the bright side for the Rams is the fact that they play their final three games against other teams in the mix for that final spot with a home game against Minnesota (6-6) and road contests against Tampa Bay (6-6) and Seattle.
Other teams in the mix are Washington (5-6 going into tonight), New Orleans (5-7) and Dallas (6-6).
Of course, from the Rams standpoint, none of that other stuff matters unless they take care of their own business. That means finding a way to extend their current two-game win streak to three games by beating Buffalo on the road this week.
“We can take a lot of positive things from what’s happened,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ve won two in a row now. We won two in the division. We are undefeated in the division. But that does you no good unless you win the next game. We have done some good things but we have also let some games slip away earlier that we should not have.”
The idea of consistency is something that has eluded the Rams for most of this season. Even early in the year when they strung together a pair of victories against division opponents in a five-day span, they were unable to carry over that production and went into a 0-4-1 tailspin.
Fisher hopes that Sunday’s win against the Niners is a sign of growth that his team will use its heart stopping win as an important building block to finish strong.
“Let me go back to the first game against them,” Fisher said. “We played pretty well, but we had the chance to win it, but we made mistakes. We made young mistakes. We had a chance. I think the perception was that, well we might’ve caught them on a bad day. So, we get to start over again and find a way to beat the team to beat in our division. It’s a good feeling in the locker room.”
“It feels pretty good,” Jackson said. “We have a lot of room to grow, but the one thing about this team that we learned about the personality of it that guys are going to continue to fight. Guys are going to continue to bring their ‘A’ game despite what it looks like, despite what people may think. This group of men believes that we can compete at a high level.”
It remains to be seen how many victories it’s going to take to secure the final wild card spot. It’s entirely possible the Rams would need to win out to be in that position, in which case their tie could coincidentally help them, but the only certain part of the equation is that nothing else can happen unless the Rams keep finding ways to scratch out wins like they did Sunday against the 49ers.
“We went over that a couple weeks ago,” linebacker
It’s a sentiment clearly echoing that of his coach.
“This team is focused on Buffalo, that’s our next opponent,” Fisher said. “There’s too much that can happen right now. We just go play, that’s it. Those things take care of themselves. We have a huge challenge this week.”