With four games to go, the Rams found themselves right in the thick of the NFC playoff race and coming off their most spirited win of the season against San Francisco.
The season’s final four games offered no quarter, however, as the Rams faced the prospect of hitting the road for three of the final four essentially needing to win every game to land a spot in the postseason.
GAME 13 at BUFFALO
Nothing ever comes easy in the NFL but there may not be a team that can attest to that adage with more accuracy than the 2012 Rams.
The game against the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium was just another in an ever-developing line of heartstopping victories buoyed by late game heroics.
The result, in regulation this time, was a stirring 15-12 win against Buffalo in a game the Rams trailed for most of the day.
“We didn’t think it was going to be easy,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “It was tough but nobody panicked. We made some adjustments at halftime, it was a close ball game, all we had to do was make some plays.”
And make some plays they did as the Rams got heroic contributions from a variety of places on their way to reaching the .500 mark at 6-6-1 and extending their winning streak to three games.
The three-game tear was the first for the Rams since the final trio of games in the 2006 season and placed the Rams firmly in the mix of the NFC Playoff picture.
But they wouldn’t be there were it not for the contributions by so many up and down the roster.
That it was Gibson to make the touchdown grab was fitting on a day when he had his first career 100-yard performance, including 90 on five catches in the second half.
On the play, quarterback
The game-winning drive capped a 14-play, 84-yard journey that took four minutes and seven seconds.
“I think it says a lot about the maturity of this team,” Bradford said. “I thought the next step for us was winning on the road against an opponent who wasn’t in our division. And that’s what we did today. It wasn’t pretty. Our defense played great, kept us in it until the very end but when it mattered, guys stepped up, made plays and I think this team grew up a little bit more today.”
“You can’t say enough about them,” Bradford said. “When it counted guys stepped up and made plays. When the game was on the line, everyone knew what was at stake and they elevated their game and made the plays when we needed them.”
At 6-6-1 with three to play, the Rams were far from satisfied and well aware that there was plenty of work to be done to stay in the mix for a playoff spot.
In the immediate aftermath of the game, the focus was not on a macro, potential playoff point of view.
“I’m not concerned about that right now,” Fisher said. “What I’m happy for is these guys playing on the road in a tough place and finding a way to win the game. We are going to enjoy it tonight, then go back and get ready for another tough opponent next week.”
GAME 14 vs. MINNESOTA
What was shaping up to be a closely contested battle for position in the NFC playoffs didn’t take long to turn into a one-sided Minnesota victory as the Vikings rode the bionic legs of, who else, running back Adrian Peterson.
Peterson’s 82-yard lightning bolt of a touchdown run in the second quarter would lead to a flurry of shots, including another long one late, that eventually knocked the Rams out 36-22.
“He’s really good,” Fisher said. “You can never relax. Every time he touches the ball he’s got a chance to go. Now yes, we played a lot of good, solid defensive snaps, but we had two that were not good.”
The loss dropped the Rams to 6-7-1 on the season, ended their three-game winning streak and for all intents and purposes, took away whatever playoff possibilities that remained.
That it was Peterson providing the game’s most important blow is nothing new for Minnesota as he has consistently made the big plays needed to keep the Vikings in the playoff chase for the better part of the past two months.
On the heels of rookie receiver
To that point, a Rams defense solely focused on slowing Peterson down all week had been having terrific success in containing him. Peterson had eight carries for 8 yards, including five rushes for negative yards.
But the dam broke loose at the most inopportune time as the Vikings caught the Rams in a blitz and quarterback Christian Ponder handed it off to Peterson on a draw.
Peterson darted toward the right, slowed for a second and saw a seam up the middle. From there, he turned on the speed and raced 82-yards for a touchdown. That made it 14-7 and much of the air that had entered the Edward Jones Dome suddenly went away.
Fisher put the blame on himself and the defensive staff for making a bad call on first down.
“We were in the wrong defense, obviously,” Fisher said. “We were expecting pass and you can’t do that and so I think as coaches we have to take that. We had a defensive tackle dropping in coverage, so in a lead draw when the guy hits the secondary unblocked (that happens).”
Peterson’s touchdown set off a disastrous chain of events for the Rams that ultimately carried the Vikings to a victory in a forgettable second quarter for St. Louis.
Over the course of four minutes, 11 seconds, the Vikings took advantage of two Rams turnovers in turning a 7-7 tie into a 24-7 lead that would actually stretch to 30-7 going into the locker room.
“The first half, it was just bad football,” Bradford said. “We didn’t play well. We did the exact things we knew we couldn’t do if we wanted to win the game. We got behind. We didn’t control the football. We turned the football over. We talked about it all week and we didn’t execute for the first half and we just fell behind.”
The Rams attempted a spirited rally late, getting touchdowns passes to Amendola and Kendricks but another long run by Peterson, this one covering 52 yards helped the Vikings boot a field goal for the final margin.
And with that, the Rams dropped another game back of the cluster of teams still in the chase in the NFC playoffs, leaving them on the outside looking in come January.
For as frustrating as that was, it was hard to deny the progress the Rams had made to even be playing in that important of a game at this point in the season. That’s why, with two games to go, end
“I really don’t think about the postseason,” Long said. “I always said I’ll worry about that when it gets here and it will get here for this group eventually but evidently this year is not the year for the postseason.”
GAME 15 at TAMPA BAY
All week long the question persisted: how would the Rams respond to last week’s disappointing loss to Minnesota, especially with any hopes of reaching the postseason so far gone that coach Jeff Fisher resorted to quoting the movie ‘Dumb and Dumber.’
With two games to go and the playoffs something in the range of the one in a million odds Fisher referenced, the Rams offered a resounding answer about the character of their team on Dec. 23 at Raymond James Stadium.
By the time the clock hit all zeroes, the Rams had a convincing 28-13 win that saw them put together big play after big play on defense working in perfect harmony with an opportunistic offense.
“We talked about it before the game that we were going to go out and play hard for 60 minutes and that’s exactly what we did,” Bradford said.
The win evened the Rams record at 7-7-1 on the season, including four wins in their past five games, a challenge presented by Fisher earlier in the week that he hoped would take some of the focus off the missed opportunity against the Vikings.
Even though that same Minnesota team officially eliminated the Rams from the playoffs Sunday afternoon with a 23-6 win against Houston, the Rams were unfazed by any of the discussion of some sort of hangover and responded in kind.
“A game like that shows guys professionalism, shows guys do not tank it and start thinking about the offseason,” Jackson said. “Guys showed that they are really professionals and standup guys about what they want to do. I believe everyone showed up today.”
While the Rams got four interceptions from the defense, including one returned 41 yards for a touchdown by Jenkins and five sacks, the offense also provided its share of fireworks.
The emerging Kendricks hauled in an 80-yard touchdown catch, Pettis grabbed another from 5 yards out and Jackson added a 5-yard rushing score.
Trailing 3-0 early in the second quarter, Jenkins jumped in front of a pass from Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman and raced 41 yards for a touchdown to give the Rams a lead they would not relinquish.
It was Jenkins’ league-leading fourth return touchdown of the season and his third from an interception.
“I just, every time I touch the ball, I feel like I can get in the end zone,” Jenkins said. “That’s my mentality and I’ll keep having that mentality.”
Jenkins’ interception set off a chain of events that time and again saw the Rams coming up with big plays at the most important times. They also got picks from Laurinaitis, end
And in the second half with the Bucs trying to mount a desperate comeback, the Rams twice came up with stops on fourth down inside their 10-yard line.
“This team is very resilient,” Jackson said. “Our defense is amazing. They are going to create turnovers, they are going to get after the passer and they are going to make it tough for the opposing offense. So as an offense, it gives us opportunities that we have got to take advantage of. A lot of times, it wasn’t really smooth as an offense but when we had to make plays, we showed up once again.”
GAME 16 at SEATTLE
To hear even the casual observer tell it, the Rams never stood a chance entering the season finale against the Seahawks.
Seattle entered the game as the league’s hottest team, averaging 50 points per game the previous three weeks, riding the wave of a playoff berth and playing in the NFL’s most hostile atmosphere.
Quietly, the Rams had won four of their past five and three consecutive road games but that was overlooked because they weren’t putting up the video game numbers the Seahawks were posting.
But the memo that a Rams team with “nothing” to play for aside from pride and some positive statistics for 2013 never found its way into the Rams locker room.
While the Rams weren’t quite able to overcome the long odds everyone else established on their behalf, the effort that saw them come up just short in a 20-13 loss to NFC West Division rival Seattle served as yet another reminder that the Rams are going to have to be respected in the immediate future.
“I don’t think many people gave us an opportunity, I don’t think many people thought this game would be close except us,” Fisher said. “I am very, very proud of the professional approach not only all year but this (week) in preparation. I understand this is a difficult place to play and we understood what we needed to do to win the game. I am disappointed that we fell short but that was a tremendous effort by our guys. They have nothing to be disappointed about.”
In a game that Fisher referred to as his team’s most difficult challenge last week, the Rams played Sunday’s game like it was their last, not just the last of the 2012 season (which it was) but perhaps their final opportunity to play ever.
It’s a mentality that had been prevalent nearly from the day Fisher took over as head coach almost a year ago. It’s a mentality that saw the Rams post the best record within a division that entering Sunday possessed the best combined winning percentage among the NFL’s six divisions.
The Rams finished the season with a record of 7-8-1 and surged to a final divisional record of 4-1-1.
So while the Rams came up eight points short of finishing with a winning record for the first time since 2003 and their first undefeated divisional record since 1999, they went down firing off haymakers as they’d done for most of the season.
“This team is definitely headed in the right direction, a lot of young talent,” Jackson said. “The free agents that we signed in the offseason came in right away and made an impact on this team. Anyone that follows the team closely sees that we are a different team, a team to be reckoned with and the NFC West will have to deal with us.”
After narrowly missing on an opportunity to recover a fumble that could have given them a chance to steal the win, the Seahawks scored on a 1-yard run by quarterback Russell Wilson for the final margin with 1:39 to go.
Jackson made a little bit of history with a 14-yard run in the second quarter that pushed him past the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the eighth consecutive year, a feat accomplished by only five other backs in league history.
A late drive attempting to tie it came up short as Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman intercepted Bradford’s last gasp throw for Pettis to seal it with 40 seconds left.
As the Rams came up just short of making that one final play to sweep Seattle, they were frustrated to come up short but Fisher was quick to remind them of the progress made in one season’s time.
A team that a year ago at this time was finishing up a 2-14 season and facing sweeping offseason changes now gets to go into an offseason with plenty to build on and a future that looks unquestionably bright.
“I think the guys will get away, get refreshed and recharged and come back with some optimism,” Fisher said. “I think those guys in that room can stand up, look deep in your eye and say ‘Hey, the Rams are back’ and that’s what we wanted to accomplish this year.”