By Rams Nation's Don Ackerman
Just last year, there were some stinkers. The one that is burned into my mind is the Washington game that ended when Kurt Warner was sacked by LaVar Arrington. Warner fumbled the ball, the Redskins recovered and the Rams lost 20-17. That was UGLY! And that was a loss.
In 2003, the Rams are in some ugly games. Scores like 33-22, 23-21, and most recently 26-20. But those are wins! In 2002, there were scores like 16-23, 10-13, 3-10 and 21-26. Those were losses. Maybe I was spoiled by 1999 and 2001 but 2002 woke me up. Right now, I'm enjoying ugly wins.
The difference between 2003 and 2002 is we are scoring more points. We're winning those ugly games.
Defense is Key in 2003
The defense is key in 2003. Last night's 26-20 win over Cleveland on Monday Night Football showcased the new Rams again. Aeneas Williams, who was exiled in Arizona the last time the Rams played on Super Sunday, was all over the field. On the Browns' first drive, Aeneas popped Holcomb with a hit that could be felt through the television. It was a preview of a performance that would land his image on Madden's horse trailer as the MVP of the game. Later in the game, with the game on the line, Aeneas intercepted Holcomb (who undoubtedly had nightmares of some guy in a #35 jersey) twice on consecutive drives. He scored his second touchdown in two weeks. Yes, the D is key.
The impact of the D was felt again on the final drive. Trying to rally late in the fourth quarter on 4th and 3, quarterback Tim Couch was hit by Brian Young who forced the fumble. Game over. Thank you, D!
One knock against the defense Monday night was their overpursuing of plays. I know it was used against the Rams but this "problem" is a sign of success. The Rams are swarming and going after the ball. I'd rather have an overpursuing D than a lethargic halfhearted effort. Keep it up, boys!!
But the D is not always at it's best. In the second half of the Cleveland game, the defense looked exposed. The Rams were up an impressive 23-7 at halftime. With that big lead, I think the Rams D loosened up. Meanwhile, the Rams O felt no real urgency to score. It's hard to judge the defensive performance because I believe the Rams jumped ahead then coasted. I'm sure Lovie will be all over them this week. I wonder if the Cleveland running game exposed the Rams D and what does Seattle take from that?
Wilkins Vies for MVP
The defense is functioning as a unit. Last week, Little shines. This week Aeneas is MVP. As a unit, the D is fully functional and operational. But one player on the Rams rises above the rest throughout the season. Jeff Wilkins has to be the Rams' MVP. He does it all. He tackles, he kicks, and he even runs for his life. That 4th and 2 conversion for a first down was great. Now I've seen Wilkins do everything! Minnesota, take notes.
What is going on on offense? They are schizophrenic at best. First, Marshall is playing great ball. With his fourth 100-yard game, you gotta be amazed that he can do it game after game, year after year. Monday he was running through players and was moving forward or sideways after most hits. I don't remember players knocking him backwards. Welcome back, Marshall. We missed you!!!
The wide receivers are also doing well. Looker is lookering very good. Holt and Bruce are #1 and #13 in the league are showing they are the best wideout tandem in the NFL. They bringing Looker along nicely and it seems they might even have to make room for John St. Clair. Just kidding but St. Clair's 18-yard reception on 3rd and 1 was impressive.
But what is going on with Marc Bulger? He looked lost through most of the game. You could see it on his face. You could see it in his throws. Does he like Kurt so much he's sabotaging his starting job? That's the only thing that makes sense. Bulger is a young QB but week after week it's very confusing. Since he's the man with the ball, his schizophrenic performance makes the whole team seem out of sorts.
Reffing Has Gone From Bad to Comical
The only thing worse than Bulger's performance is the lack of performance by the officials. The breaks in the action were pathetic! The stoppage of play to tell Coach Martz, then to tell Coach Davis was obnoxious. That must have been frustrating for the players and I know it would be painful to observe if you were at the game. The NFL has a very serious problem with officiating and I don't know how they solve it. Maybe the refs need headsets or something so they can quickly communicate and prevent these horrible calls and long boring breaks in the action.
Kudos to ABC
Though the announcers for Monday Night Football can be as obnoxious as the officiating (are Madden and Michaels ever wrong? Don't ask them!), kudos to ABC for the best halftime bit I've seen. No, I'm not talking about Chris Berman's annoying "highlights." I'm talking about the behind-the-scenes look at the Rams preparing for the game. What a great in-depth look at what happens at Rams Park. It was beautiful and I guess non-Rams fans could enjoy it too. The best part had to be Jim Hanifan (Offensive Line Coach) and his playoff sweater. Too cool! Thanks, ABC.
The Rams are now winners on the road with 4 victories against 3 losses. That's impressive considering last years' 1-7 record with their lone win at Arizona. Ouch! But 4-3 looks even better when you consider that only TWO other NFC teams have a winning road record (Philadelphia is 5-1 and Tampa Bay is 4-3). WOW!
With only 1 road game left, the Rams will at worst go from 1-7 to 4-4 with victories at Arizona, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland. Beyond Arizona, I would not say those are places easy to win on the road. Give the Rams credit for playing well at home (6-0 at home - only Seattle is better at 7-0) and on the road!
Time to punch Seattle's ticket home. The Seahawks come to Saint Louis desperate for a win after a road beating at Minnesota. The Rams want to win this game. They want home field and they do not control their own destiny.
With 3 losses each, the Rams and Eagles are tied for the best record. Since they have not played head to head, the first tiebreaker is conference record. The Rams are 7-3 with 2 NFC games left and the Eagles are one better at 8-2 with 2 NFC games left.
If you're wondering what happens if the Rams and Eagles end the season with the same conference record, it doesn't get better. The third tiebreaker is best win-loss record in common games (minimum of four). That's an odd tie-breaker because it's not balanced. The Rams played the Giants once and Philly played them twice. Conversely, we played San Francisco twice and Philadelphia will play them once (Dec. 21st). The common opponents are: Giants, San Francisco, Atlanta, Green Bay with the Rams being 3-2 (lost to Giants, SF) and the Eagles winning the tie breaker at 4-0 (with 1 game left against SF).
Looks like we'll just have to win and take it from there.
Don, the Rams Nation columnist can be contacted at Don@RamsNation.org.