Asked if he views Sunday’s game against Minnesota as a sort of de facto playoff game, Rams running back
“We want to win,” Jackson said. “The good thing about it is we only play one game a week. So, we’re resting up for Sunday.”
Really, every game for the Rams in the past three weeks or so has taken on a playoff-like meaning. As they’ve pieced together three consecutive wins for the first time since the end of 2006, the Rams have moved to 6-6-1 on the year and still find themselves in the mix for the NFC playoffs.
But there is no margin for error, giving every game a do or die feel. On Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, the Rams will face an opponent that knows exactly what the do or die mentality has to be in each game the rest of the season.
Minnesota, led by scorching hot running back Adrian Peterson, comes to St. Louis at 7-6 and one of the handful of teams that stands between the Rams and a shot at a wild card berth. The Vikings also harbor playoff hopes of their own and know they need a win to stay in the mix.
Because the Rams find themselves sitting behind a group that includes Minnesota, Dallas, Washington, Seattle and Chicago for the final two wild card spots, they aren’t concerned much with the many different scenarios needed to sneak into the postseason.
The one thing the Rams and coach Jeff Fisher know for sure is that if they don’t take care of their own business, they can forget about anything else.
“If we were 10-1 or something like that, then we’d be talking about the importance of winning out and the advantage of home-field advantage,” Fisher said. “Right now, none of that matters unless we win this game. We have to find a way -- as the Vikings do -- to win.”
Sunday’s game should provide no shortage of energy for the Rams to use. Their team is playing meaningful December football, it’s the final home game of the season and it’s the annual Fan Appreciation game.
That combination could create one of the better gameday atmospheres the Rams have had at the Edward Jones Dome in some time.
“It means a lot whenever you can get your home crowd in there, making a lot of noise, feeding off their energy in tough situations,” Jackson said. “We see how effective it can be in the San Francisco series, that last home game against San Francisco. Our fans are very supportive this year and they’ve been behind us. They’re very excited about what Coach Fisher has brought.”
For that excitement to carry through and help the Rams come up with a win against Minnesota, the defense will have to find a way to slow down the tour de force that is Peterson and the 2012 season.
Peterson leads the league with 1,600 rushing yards and he’s eyeing the 2,105-yard season mark owned by Eric Dickerson.
The Rams have fared well the past two weeks against top running backs like Frank Gore, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson but Peterson represents a far different challenge, one that even long time coach and current assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said is unlike any other in the league today.
“He’s a special type of runner because he’s strong enough to be able to power through when you stack a line against him, but at the same time, he’s got that God-given jump cut ability where he sticks that foot in the ground and he can go,” McGinnis said. “He’s probably got the best stiff arm I’ve seen since Walter Payton. When he brings that thing out, it’s a weapon. He’s a very, very gifted runner. You can tell he’s very passionate about it. Plus, those great runners, you can just tell by watching that they want the ball and he’s all of that.”
On the other side of the ball, the Rams must find a way to generate offense earlier than the past two weeks. Although they’ve found ways to score points when they are needed most, an early lead against the Vikings would help force Minnesota into throwing more regularly and give the Rams a chance to pass rush more frequently.
Earlier in the year, the Rams offense was one of the best in the league at scoring early, putting up points on their opening drive in seven of their first 10 games. That hasn’t been there in the past three weeks and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer points to a simple reason for that.
“Well again I think it comes down to execution,” Schottenheimer said. “We’re not going to change our approach. I think for up to the middle part of the season or so, we were one of the best teams in the league in starting fast, scoring touchdowns in opening drives and we hit a little bit of a cold spell. We’ll get back to just preaching the fundamentals and things like that. We need to tighten some things up. That’s kind of been the message this week is tighten some things up from a fundamental standpoint, from a technique standpoint. I think if we do that, I think you’ll see more consistent play, which will allow us to go and score touchdowns.”
Although offense has been hard to come by and the defense and special teams have done their jobs keeping the Rams in games, they know that they have followed a familiar blueprint to most of their six wins.
That blueprint involves keeping games close, not allowing big plays and then coming up with one or two plays at opportune times to pull games out at the end. It may not be pretty but so far it’s worked and the Rams likely won’t stray from that formula this week.
“We’re playing hard and we’ve got a lot of people in the frame on every play and that’s important,” Fisher said. “That would include linemen downfield. That would include defensive players around the ball. Consistently from the start to the end of the game and that’s what’s important. Of course, we’re doing the same thing on special teams and when you do that you’ve got a chance to win games. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s the way of life. It’s the way around here. You have to get to the football and you have to get there the right way and when you get there you have to be a little on the angry side defensively. That’s kind of our philosophy.”
It’s a philosophy that has the Rams right in the middle of a postseason chase even if they don’t control their own destine. It’s also a philosophy that has brought the fun of late-season football back to St. Louis, a welcome sentiment in the Rams locker room.
“It’s a really good feeling,” Bradford said. “Obviously, in the past couple years; we’ve been through some pretty tough times. It wasn’t a lot of fun last year at this time of the year. Weren’t a lot of smiles in the locker room, on the practice field. But to put three in a row and to win some games, it just changes the whole attitude and makes it a lot more enjoyable to come to work.”