After a full bye week to re-charge and recover from London, there was no let up in the Rams schedule.
In fact, after playing just two NFC West Division games in the first eight games of the season, the second half was loaded with the Rams’ most familiar opponents, including the next game on the schedule.
GAME 9 at SAN FRANCISCO
Had you informed the Rams before their trip to Candlestick Park to take on the defending NFC West Division champion 49ers and their ferocious defense and efficient offense that they would head home Sunday night without a loss on their record, chances are they probably would have been more than happy to take it.
But after 75 grueling minutes of football finally came to a conclusion on Nov. 11, the Rams couldn’t quite figure out how to feel. Because while the Rams didn’t lose to the heavily-favored 49ers, they didn’t win, either.
The result was a 24-24 tie, the precise type of outcome that no player dreams possible before any game.
“I’m really not sure what to feel,” end
After a little time passed and it sunk in that the Rams had played to a tie for the first time since a 10-10 knot on Sept. 19, 1976 at Minnesota, the overwhelming feeling in the Rams locker room wasn’t emotionless, it was regret.
“It’s a weird feeling,” quarterback
The tie moved the Rams record to 3-5-1 on the season but it wasn’t so much the result itself as the way they got there that left the Rams wanting more.
In fact, both teams had multiple opportunities to secure the victory Sunday but aside from San Francisco kicker David Akers’ missed 41-yard field goal in overtime, the Rams clearly had a few more definitive chances to get the job done.
“I have to say I have been doing this awhile and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game like this,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “As we just told our guys, we had a number of chances to put this one away and unfortunately we didn’t.”
The missed chances included an 80-yard strike from Bradford to receiver
Even in regulation, Amendola had a long punt return called back and the defense was unable to get a stop after Bradford led a relentless 14-play, 81-yard drive for a touchdown to take a 24-21 lead with 1:09 to play.
It was just another facet of a maddening game in which the Rams had multiple opportunities to get to 3-0 in the division and pull off their biggest win in a game Fisher earlier in the week said would be his team’s “biggest challenge.”
“When you have the opportunities that we had and they were given away by things that were in our power to control, that’s the frustrating thing,” Bradford said.
When the clock finally ran out, it took a moment for it to sink in that the game was over without a definitive result. Fortunately for both sides, they won’t have to wait long to renew acquaintances.
The Rams and Niners have a Dec. 2 date to finish what they started Sunday.
“I think we are going to think we let one get away from us,” Jackson said. “They went to the championship game. They are a very good team, they played a very good game and we did as well and we have to face them again in three weeks.”
GAME 10 vs. NEW YORK JETS
After perhaps their most spirited performance in a tie against San Francisco, the Rams had an energetic, enthusiastic week of practice leading into their game against the Jets.
The Rams felt confident, like things were moving in the right direction in all phases and like they might just be on the verge of a breakout. What they got instead was a disappointing, turnover-prone 27-13 loss in which not much of anything went right, according to Fisher.
“We got outplayed today,” Fisher said. “We got outcoached today. Anytime you turn the ball over – I don’t care who you play in the National Football League – three times, you have a hard time if you don’t get the ball back yourself and to overcome those things and basically that was it.”
The loss dropped the Rams to 3-6-1 on the year and made hope of landing a postseason bid that much more difficult.
Against the Jets, the Rams lost the turnover battle in decided fashion and it was no coincidence that the scoreboard reflected as much.
“They forced turnovers, we didn’t,” middle linebacker
The offense turned it over three times with Bradford throwing an interception early in the second quarter, coughing up a fumble when he was sacked by Jets end Muhammad Wilkerson and running back
The Rams escaped trouble following Bradford’s interception when
After Jets linebacker Bart Scott scooped up Bradford’s fumble and returned it to the Rams 28, New York claimed the lead and never looked back on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Mark Sanchez to Chaz Schillens.
Richardson’s fumble came early in the fourth quarter with the Rams trailing 20-7 and attempting to get back in it. Seven plays later, Jets running back Bilal Powell scored his second touchdown, this time from 11 yards out to make it 27-7 and essentially the Rams’ hopes of a comeback.
“I know it’s really hard to win a game when you have minus-three turnovers,” Jackson said. “It’s just really hard to overcome that and we’ve got to help our defense out, we’ve got to help our special teams out. We have to score on offense and we’ve all got to lean on each other.”
For the most part, turning the ball over hasn’t been much of a recurring problem for the Rams this season. The defense, however, is a bit of a different story.
After a hot start in which the Rams defense came up with nine takeaways in the first five games, the Rams went on a five-game drought without a single takeaway. No interceptions, no fumble recoveries, nothing.
The Rams actually knocked a couple of balls loose against the Jets, much like they did last week against the Niners but once again; they were unable to come up with the ball.
“It’s completely frustrating,” linebacker
The offense, which scored on the opening drive of the game as Bradford hit receiver Brandon Gibson for a 1-yard score, finished with just 281 yards of total offense, scoring only once more as Bradford hit Gibson for a 2-yard touchdown for the final margin.
The defense did its best to keep the Rams in the game, allowing the Jets to gain just 289 yards of total offense but once again it was the lack of a big play by the defense that ultimately stood out in their minds.
“We need to do that,” end
GAME 11 at ARIZONA
After a frustrating seven weeks that saw the Rams go without a victory, Fisher’s message to his team this week was about as simple as it gets.
“Coach Fisher said Monday or Wednesday we just needed to get a win, all it takes is one,” Bradford said.
That one win had been somewhat elusive in the Rams’ past five games as they had gone 0-4-1 since beating the same Cardinals team they played Sunday way back on Oct. 4. Along the way, they’d had a heartbreaking loss in Miami and a wrenching tie in San Francisco.
So in some sense, things finally came full circle against Arizona, who likewise hadn’t won a game in even longer than the Rams.
Something had to give and on Sunday, that something gave in the Rams’ favor as they used a formula that falls in line with exactly what type of team they want to be on their way to an impressive 31-17 win on the strength of a dominant second half performance.
“It seems like for weeks we have been talking about turnovers and we kept saying that these type of things come in bunches and they did today,” Fisher said. “Obviously that and our run game was the difference in the ball game.”
Behind an opportunistic defense that created four takeaways and returned two for touchdowns and a running game that imposed its will on a stout Arizona defense, the Rams improved to 4-6-1 on the season and continued their impressive run within the division as they moved to 3-0-1 against the NFC West with their first road victory of 2012.
The season sweep represents the first time the Rams have swept a division opponent since stringing together three straight against Seattle in 2004. It also wrapped up the team’s first winning record in the division since that same season.
“Obviously we have still got a lot of work to do but we are heading in the right direction,” Bradford said. “Anytime you are undefeated in the division at this point in the season, it’s a good thing.”
To keep that streak going, the Rams got a total team effort, particularly in the second half but also relied heavily on a pair of special performances, one from each side of the ball.
On the heels of a five-game streak in which they went without a takeaway, the Rams finally ended the drought with four interceptions of Arizona rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley. It was the first four-interception regular season game for the Rams since they had six against Atlanta on Dec. 15, 1996.
Two of those interceptions fell into the eager arms of rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who returned one 36 yards and another 39 yards for a pair of touchdowns. In the process, he became the first player in Rams history to return two interceptions for scores and just the third rookie in league history to do it.
“He played lights out today,” Dunbar said. “We actually did a lot of things in terms of playing zone and playing man and he was able to come up with some huge plays and turn them into six. Anytime you get turnovers and turn them into points, that’s always a big thing for your offense and your defense.”
The offense, meanwhile, revved up with some big plays as Bradford hit 37-yard touchdown passes to tight end
Running behind the offensive line the Rams envisioned entering the season for the first time since the season opener in Detroit, Jackson and the run game found a rhythm in the second quarter, carried it into the second half and never looked back.
It was vintage Jackson.
“Oh, God, he took over today,” Bradford said. “He was just in one of those modes today. I have seen it before. He gets that look in his eye and he is not going to be stopped. He did a great job running today. I thought those guys upfront opened up some holes for him but you can’t say enough about Steven. He played tremendous today.”
GAME 12 at SAN FRANCISCO
After leaving a 58-yard field goal near the end of the first half wide right, Zuerlein was eager to get back on the field coming out of the locker room to make the necessary corrections so he wouldn’t repeat the same mistake.
As is custom at halftime, Zuerlein and the other specialists came out of the locker room earlier than the rest of their teammates. When they arrived back on the field, they had company as the Rams were wrapping up their 75th Anniversary celebration honoring 20 of their all time greats.
Suddenly, Zuerlein heard a voice newly familiar to him offering encouragement.
“Don’t worry about that one, you’re going to make the game winner,” the voice called out.
When Zuerlein turned, he saw someone who knows a thing or two about making clutch kicks. It was Jeff Wilkins, the man nicknamed ‘Money,’ who had spent 11 seasons in St. Louis and remains the franchise’s all-time scoring leader.
Nearly three full quarters later, Zuerlein found himself in position to make Wilkins a prophet as the Rams and Niners closed in on another stunning tie.
Instead, Zuerlein made good on his opportunity, booting a 54-yard field goal inside the left upright with plenty of room to spare to give the Rams a spirited 16-13 victory.
Finally, mercifully, after almost 10 quarters, after seven hours and 26 minutes, after a three-week wait, the Rams got the result they wanted.
“We knew it was going to be a heavyweight fight,” Laurinaitis said. “We expected that. We really wanted to finish the fight. We talked about it all week. If it took another five rounds, if it needed to go another five rounds, we said we’d finish it this time. I never thought it would go another five rounds. If I had to go five more, I would to get a ‘W’.”
The victory improved the Rams to 5-6-1 on the season and bolstered their NFC West Division record to an unblemished 4-0-1. In the process, they firmly planted themselves in the mix for a potential NFC playoff spot with four games to play.
Never has coach Jeff Fisher been happier to admit a mistake.
“Earlier in the week I was asked about what it’s like to play a team within proximity of just recently playing them again in three or four weeks,” Fisher said, a grin creeping across his face. “I think I said the games are completely different, so I apologize for being absolutely wrong. Wow. That’s the case of guys just hanging in there. Guys making plays. Guys in the three different phases just making the plays that we needed to make.”
None of those plays were needed more than the two biggest kicks of Zuerlein’s young career. Including the 58-yard miss in the second quarter, he had missed four of his previous seven kicks and the man of many nicknames had left some wondering whether his confidence was shaken.
When Zuerlein came on at the end of regulation, he calmly booted a 53-yarder right down the middle to tie it at 13 and sent it to overtime.
After the offense was unable to give him a chance to win it earlier in the overtime period, Zuerlein watched as Niners kicker David Akers attempted a 51-yard field goal with 4:16 to go. When Akers’ kick sailed wide right, the door creaked open for the Rams.
Having missed a 58-yarder in overtime to win in the first meeting in San Francisco was actually the furthest thing from Zuerlein’s mind.
“I was just visualizing the snap, the hold, and the kick,” Zuerlein said. “Not much else. You just run that through your head a few times and picture yourself winning the game.”
As the entire Edward Jones Dome waited nervously, the Rams ran the clock down to 30 seconds, called a timeout and Fisher sent Zuerlein on to the field.
Following a slight delay, the officials signaled the kick good, Zuerlein was mobbed and, well, he doesn’t remember the rest.
“I don’t really know (what happened),” Zuerlein said. “I was looking at (Punter/Holder) Johnny (Hekker). I normally just give him a high five or a low five. He was screaming and then some other people hit me and I blacked out.”
Zuerlein became the first kicker in NFL history to hit a 50-plus yard field goal to send a game to overtime with no time left on the clock and a 50-plus yarder to win it in overtime.
The game turned on a pair of big defensive plays that provided much needed points. First, trailing 7-0 and in desperate need of any points, Laurinaitis blitzed Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick that forced him to retreat to the end zone and throw it away.
But the ball never made it back to the line of scrimmage, and Kaepernick was called for grounding and the Rams were on the board to make it 7-2.
Then, with 3:11 to play and the Niners looking to convert on third-and-3 and the Rams trailing 10-2, the long awaited lucky bounce finally went their way.
Kaepernick lined up in the shotgun in a pistol formation with running back Frank Gore directly behind him and Ted Ginn Jr. further behind and took the snap.
Jenkins was playing trap coverage with the assignment of reading the quarterback’s eyes. As Kaepernick faked the handoff to Gore and kept it for himself, Jenkins knew his job was to take the pitch man on the option play, in this case Ginn.
As Kaepernick’s pitch flew wide, Jenkins flew to the ball, grabbed it and rolled into the end zone from 2 yards out for his third touchdown in two weeks. Bradford followed by hitting tight end Lance Kendricks for a 2-point conversion to tie it at 10 with 3:04 to go.
“Each and every day, the coaches say we are going to get those turnovers, we are going to get those bounces,” Jenkins said. “The last two weeks it has been going pretty well for us and we have just got to keep it up.”
From there, it was all about the rookie kicker.
With four games to go in the season, anything remained possible. And if belief was lacking before that dramatic turn of events, perhaps it became more abundant than ever after the win.
“It’s over, we finally won,” Bradford said. “It took 10 quarters, but we finally came out on top. It’s a huge win for this team and this organization. It’s just something for us to build on going into the future.”