OK, so who will beat the Rams? Elsa/Getty Images
By Don Banks
Maybe not since the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Steelers opened their 1976 schedule at 1-4 has there been a more dangerous sub-.500 team at the season's midway point than this year's Rams.
You remember the story of the '76 Steelers, don't you? They lost starting quarterback Terry Bradshaw to a midseason injury and were given up for dead in the days of the 14-game schedule. Ah, but nine consecutive season-ending wins later, the Steelers were 10-4, atop the AFC Central and once again playoff-bound.
Sound familiar? The Rams hope so.
Pittsburgh's resurgence was built on its dominating defense. Just as St. Louis' fledgling return to life in the NFC race has been predicated on its resurgent offense, even without the injured Kurt Warner. St. Louis has scored 28, 37 and 27 in its past three games, its highest point totals of the season.
Rest assured, there's nobody eager to play the on-the-rebound Rams in the second half. It was just a matter of time before St. Louis got its house in order. The question now is, did it do so in time to really matter?
Though they have virtually no margin for error, the Rams definitely are still breathing. At 3-5, St. Louis probably needs to go 7-1 down the stretch to have a good shot at catching Atlanta (5-3) for the NFC's final wild-card berth. While that would mean the Rams would have finished the year on a 10-of-11 run to become the first playoff team to overcome an 0-5 start, that feat isn't as daunting as it might sound in this anything-goes season.
For starters, let's give the Rams all four of their remaining home games, against San Diego, Chicago, Arizona and San Francisco (in a regular-season finale that will mean more to the Rams than the 49ers).
As for the road, trips to Washington, Kansas City and Seattle all look winnable. Only the Dec. 1 game at Philadelphia could be an uphill battle. But the Rams went into Veterans Stadium and won in the 2001 opener, a game that set the tone for their Super Bowl return.
For now, the Rams need to forget about everybody else and focus like a laser on catching Atlanta. To assure themselves a postseason berth, they have to make up three games on the Falcons in the final eight weeks. That doesn't sound impossible, does it?
Consider this: Atlanta plays at Pittsburgh and at home against New Orleans the next two weeks. The Falcons easily could be 5-5 after those games, the same record the Rams would have if they take care of home games against the Chargers and Bears. Then it would boil down to a six-week race to build a one-game lead or turn the tiebreakers the Rams' way.
Sorry, rest of the NFL. That's more than a plausible scenario. It might even be likely. And here's another likelihood: The more the onrushing Rams win, the more nervous the Falcons and the rest of the NFC is going to get seeing them in their rear-view mirrors.
Too deep of a hole
Sorry, St. Louis: It'll be too little, too late. Andy Lyons/Getty Images
By Peter King
The fact that we're even asking this question is one of the things that makes the NFL so much fun. Even when you're on life support in mid-October, it's never over til' it's over. As I see it, there are two issues here:
1. Yes, the Rams can make the playoffs, because they're playing like the Rams of the recent past -- the defense has come alive and Marshall Faulk is playing like a top-five all-time running back.
2. No, I don't believe the Rams will make the playoffs, for a couple of reasons. They dug themselves too big of a hole by starting 0-5, and to even earn a wild-card spot they'd likely have to make up three games on an Atlanta team that plays Minnesota, Seattle, Detroit and Cleveland in December.
Having said that, it's so hard to leave the Rams for dead. There may be but one game (at the Eagles on Dec. 1) out of their remaining eight when they'll be an underdog. Like my Head2Head partner, Don Banks, says, 7-1 could well get them in, and I believe they could -- and "could" is the operative word -- go 7-1 and finish 10-6.
But the mountains they must climb are formidable. Too formidable, I think. When I predicted the NFC playoff picture for Sports Illustrated this week, I picked the Falcons to edge the Rams for the final wild-card spot. Let's look at this logically, though that's dangerous because in this weird season -- when the ice-cold Jets win by 31 at the red-hot Chargers, when the winless Bengals win on the road by 31 and when the slumping Patriots win at the storming Bledsoes by 31 -- NFL logic does not exist.
The Rams are 3-5. Let's hand the NFC East to the Eagles, who have a two-game lead and a huge tiebreaker edge there, and let's give the NFC Central to Green Bay, with a four-game lead over Detroit. To make the playoffs, with the number of wild-card teams down from three to two this year, it appears St. Louis will have to beat out one of four teams: the 49ers (6-2) or the third-place team in the NFC South. Right now, the Bucs are 7-2, the Saints 6-2 and the Falcons 5-3.
Look at tiebreakers. The Rams are 2-1 in the division and 2-4 in the NFC. San Francisco is 3-0 and 5-1. In conference games, the Bucs are 4-2 (with a win over the Rams), the Saints 5-2 and the Falcons 4-3.
So the Rams' best hope, with eight games left, seems to be beating out the Falcons. It's probably fair, particularly with a trip to Pittsburgh on Sunday, to say the Falcons won't be better than 10-6. In today's NFL, when every team in the league except Green Bay has lost an average of at least once per four games this year, how can you count on the Rams to finish 7-1? Even if they do, they still, in all likelihood, would face a tiebreaker with another team. And they trail every team in the tiebreakers right now.
The solution for the Rams, of course, is to win out. They're the one team that has a prayer of doing that in this bizarre year. I've seen enough, though, to be convinced no team is running the table.