With five games left to play in the 2012 regular season, the Rams find themselves in an extremely meaningful game on Sunday against the division-leading 49ers.
By now, all of the talk about unfinished business and the tie has already been well documented but there are far bigger things at play at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday at noon than simply looking for resolution from a meeting 21 days ago.
At the top of that list is keeping pace in the NFC West, a place where the Rams have done more than hold their own in their first four games within the division.
“It’s important,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “Your success starts in your division. If you’re able to win most of the games in the division, then typically, you have a shot to play in the postseason. Now, we let way too many games go early, but you’ve got to compete in the division. You have to build yourself to compete in the division. So far, we’re on the right track. We’re not there yet, but we’re on the right track.”
The Rams will also have the added inspiration of the team's 75th anniversary celebration Sunday with nearly 20 of the franchise's greatest players in attendance, some throwback uniforms to wear and a halftime ceremony honoring the greats of the past.
Entering Sunday’s game, the Rams are 3-0-1 in the NFC West Division, including the unsatisfying tie at 24 in San Francisco just three weeks ago. That performance has the Rams entering all division games with confidence but there is plenty of work still to be done.
“Obviously, we’ve got two left and I think this is probably going to be… this game’s really going to tell us where we are as a team,” Fisher said. “This is a really good football team coming into town that’s in the playoff race. They’re the team to beat in our division. We got close, but didn’t get it done the first time. This will be a big challenge for us.”
At 4-6-1 on the season, the Rams sit just outside of the mix for a potential sixth and final spot in the NFC playoffs. But this weekend could present a golden opportunity to get back in the mix.
While the top order of business for the Rams is to get a win against the 49ers, the large cluster of teams with records of either 6-5 or 5-6 face challenges every bit as difficult.
Following New Orleans loss to Atlanta which dropped it to 5-7, the rest of the teams in the mix also face difficult games most of which are on the road. That includes 6-5 Seattle at Chicago, 6-5 Minnesota at Green Bay, 6-5 Tampa Bay at Denver, 5-6 Washington hosting the Giants and 5-6 Dallas hosting Philadelphia.
Not that the Rams are concerned with any of those other games but they do know that if they don’t get a win, none of the other potential things that could go their way this week will matter.
“Honestly, we have got to treat every week like a playoff game,” end
In order to climb out of that hole, the Rams must knock off the top dog in the division, a team in San Francisco that has reigned supreme for the better part of the past two seasons.
Having just played the Niners three weeks ago, there isn’t much of a chance to make drastic changes on either side of the ball.
One thing that could help the Rams from the previous meeting is an advanced familiarity with Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith, who suffered a concussion in the first half, in that game against the Rams and hasn’t looked back. Since, he’s dazzled with his ability to make plays on the run and throw the ball down the field with accuracy.
In many ways, San Francisco’s offense is more explosive with Kaepernick in the game but the Rams do at least have some film and a first hand look at him fresh in their memory, an advantage they lacked in the first meeting.
“He’s really cognizant of when it’s time to step up and when it’s time to move around the pocket,” Long said. “I think as much as his athletic ability, he’s just got good awareness and he’s a smart kid. He’s sharper than most young players. He does a good job and we are going to have to maintain our rush lane integrity.”
While the Rams defense will make the necessary adjustments to Kaepernick’s varied skills, the offense won’t have to prepare for much different from the San Francisco side.
It’s rare in this day and age for anyone to bring back all 11 starters from a previous season but the Niners have done just that with their defense this season. That means continuity, chemistry and system remain the same.
The Rams had a big day against that vaunted San Francisco defense in the first meeting but will have to continue to execute the things they did well in that initial game but also add some twists.
“They’re a defense that they do what they do,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “They don’t adjust very much. They don’t have to because they’re really good. We’re certainly going to adjust some things based off things that we saw. Will there be some carryover? Yes, sure. We’ll have a little bit of carryover. But, we’re going to tweak some things and try to show them some different things. Again, when you play a defense like this, you know where they’re going to be because they only do a certain number of things, but they do them really, really well. So, it comes down to execution.”
Although Fisher told his team earlier in the week to view this game as a continuation of the last one, there is a clear understanding of its value beyond trying to find a measure of finished business.
“To be honest, I don’t really think about the tie much unless somebody brings it up,” Long said. “I am honestly just thinking about playing the division champs. Anytime you get the chance to play them, that adds a little bit of excitement around here. It’s a big football game and certainly if we want to be the best, we have to beat the best and they are a great football team.”