By Rams Nation's Mike Franke
Position by position:
QB: Marc Bulger, again, was on again, off again, but played well enough (24-38-229, 2 TD, 1 INT) for the Rams to win again. Marc started VERY slowly, getting a dreadful, badly underthrown long pass inter-cepted to end the Rams' first drive, and getting sacked but getting a lucky bounce to recover his own fumble to end the second drive. With Isaac Bruce out, Marc looked to be on a different page than his receivers several times, had many incompletions close to nobody in particular, and appeared chained to the pocket at times instead of taking available running lanes. But, as he has usually done this season, Bulger's good plays at least evened out the bad. A tough 3rd-down pass to Dane Looker in traffic gained 7 and kept the Rams' first TD drive alive. The 2nd TD drive was all Marc, hitting Shaun McDonald, Mike Furrey and Torry Holt to set up a sweet 28-yard TD to Torry that put the Rams up 17-7. Bulger converted a couple of 3rd downs in the 3rd to set up a long FG, and after he hit Marshall Faulk with a 5-yard TD on 3rd down early in the 4th, the Rams were up 27-10 and the game was pretty much over. Marc did a good job checking down today, the last time being a 3rd-and-5 pass to Furrey for 7 that kept the Rams' epic, game-closing, 8 1/2-minute drive alive. Can the Rams win with Bulger in the playoffs? You tell me. He's just QB'ed the Rams to victory over two teams that are playoff-quality this season, and the Rams are now poised to be home for January.
RB: Marshall Faulk saved his best game of the season for the stretch run, with 121 yards rushing on just 22 carries, 33 more yards receiving, and a TD each way. Marshall had some flash today, as you might expect. He opened the game with a 12-yard reception and a 9-yard run. His 26-yard run in the 2nd quarter set up a short Wilkins FG. From the Bengal 9 early in the 4th, Faulk beat single coverage and broke an ankle tackle for a TD to put the Rams up 27-10. But Marshall also showed power today, which too few people expect. He banged three times inside the three to take in the Rams' first TD. He picked off Bengal blitzers excellently throughout the game. And with 8:26 left in the game, when it came time to run the opponent off the field, Marshall did. With the Rams starting from their 8, he ran 6 times for 50 yards, including a tough 5-yard run on 3rd-and-5 and two 17-yard scampers. Lamar Gordon added a late 11-yard run, and the deed was done. Faulk is making the Rams a truly dangerous team, peaking just in time for a postseason run.
WR: Isaac Bruce didn't play today due to his sprained ankle from last week, but Torry Holt was Big Game as usual, 10-124 and a TD. The Bengals often laid off Torry before the snap by 6-8 yards, and he made them pay. He converted a 3rd-and-4 in the 2nd to set up his 28-yard TD catch a couple of plays later. Watch-ing that TD, and remembering many other plays this season, Torry must have the best sideline footwork in the NFL, and he doesn’t get enough credit for it. Torry doesn't get enough credit for his excellent hands, either. He made a couple of terrific snags of Bulger passes thrown a little too far out in front of him. Holt deserves this year's Pro Bowl start and many to come. Dane Looker (3-17) made two first downs on the Rams' first TD drive. Mike Furrey (3-34) converted a third down on the Rams' 2nd FG drive, and another on the long drive that ended the game. Big play, clutch play: complete play.
Offensive line: The offensive line put together a pretty solid game. They allowed one early sack to Justin Smith, but that was it. Now, Cincinnati got more pressure on Bulger than I thought they ever should have, especially with 4-man rushes, but blitzes got picked up well and Bulger usually got enough time to throw. The line's best work today was run-blocking, especially in the interior, where Andy McCollum and Adam Timmerman might have had their best games of the year, with big blocks on Faulk's long runs and on his TD run. Kyle Turley had a big block on another big Faulk play. Looked like somebody missed a block on the 4th-and-an inch the Rams failed on in the 2nd, but otherwise, Marshall got the best running alleys today he's gotten this season, and the Rams controlled the line of scrimmage the last 8 ½ minutes. Rams fans have waited all season for the kind of run blocking the Rams executed today. If they can keep it up, look out.
Defensive line / LB: Defensive star of the game was Grant Wistrom, who scored 2.5 sacks and 7 tackles, stopping Rudi Johnson a couple of times. It was significant that Wistrom came up big, because Leonard Little was suffering from the flu and wasn't himself. Another big-play guy was Tommy Polley. He inter-cepted Jon Kitna in the 1st and stuffed Johnson on a big 4th-and-1 play near midfield early in the 2nd. That followed a 3rd-and-1 stop by Ryan Pickett. That all contributed to a more-effective-than-usual day against the run. They gave up 99 yards on 23 attempts, which may not be dominating, but it is close to 30 yards better than their average defensively, and close to 30 yards below Cincinnati's average offensively. Wistrom basically had all the sacks, but the Rams all kept Kitna under enough heat to force him into getting rid of the ball before he wanted to and making mistakes. Tyoka Jackson nearly had an interception near the goal line in the 2nd, and the rush figured in on 2 of Kitna's 3 INTs. But Wistrom was the man today. The Rams were up just 17-10 at halftime, but Grant blew up two Bengal drives with sacks in the 3rd quarter, and the Rams marched ahead 27-10. Grant fought off one lineman and blew past another for his last sack – let's root for the whole defense continuing to show that kind of fight the rest of the way.
Secondary: Several good performances in the secondary as well. Jason Sehorn was the early star. He held a Bengal pass play to 4 yards on 3rd-and-5 with a nice solo tackle to end their first drive. The next time out, he leaped at Kitna on a blitz and tipped a pass that Polley intercepted. Jerametrius Butler was in on Polley's 4th-down stop of Rudi Johnson. He was beaten by Kelley Washington for a jump-ball TD in the 2nd, but when the Bengals tried it again in the 4th, Butler had the answer. He jammed Washington at the line superbly, ran his route for him, and picked off the pass to end Cincinnati's chances. (Although he really shouldn't have returned it from the end zone). The secondary fell asleep at the end of the first half and allowed Chad Johnson (7-115) a long catch to set up a FG, but they managed to keep the cocky Bengal wideout from putting on any end zone shenanigans. Adam Archuleta added his first career interception to fill out a solid all-around game from the Ram secondary.
Special teams: Looked like Pro Bowl-bound kicker Jeff Wilkins was trying to boot the ball all the way to Hawaii today. Besides banging FGs of 26 and 50 yards, he blasted several kickoffs deep into the end zone for touchbacks. That worked out by far as the Rams' best option on kickoffs. Cincinnati returned most of the rest across the 30, while Arlen Harris barely got enough room to return kicks across the 20. The special teams nearly got burned by a very long, very weird punt return in the 3rd, but credit Jeremy Loyd for not quitting on it and hauling Jeff Burris down at the 5 on a play 67,000 other people were pretty sure was over.
Coaching/discipline: Interesting choices by both coaches to go for 4th-and-shorts near midfield in the second quarter. Although he was only down 7-0, Marvin Lewis may have been worried about getting blown out early, and his team has the chops in the running game to convert it, but they failed. Then Mike Martz, possibly sensing a kill opportunity, went for it on 4th-and-an-inch four plays later and failed. Hard to fault that decision – you've got to be able to gain an inch, don't you? – but the Rams didn't, swinging momentum back to the Bengals. Maybe a QB sneak there next time, Mike? Martz called one play that was way too cute, I think Bulger faked a pass, then an end-around to Furrey, before trying to throw a screen to Faulk, but the Bengals destroyed that play, and I hope Mike drags that one to the Recycle Bin and empties it in the morning. Solid game by Martz otherwise, a lot of old-fashioned power football from the "Mad" one. Good game from Lovie Smith, too. Most of his blitzes were effective; one drew Kitna's first interception. There was just that one big breakdown in the secondary at the end of the first half. Can't even complain a lot about Bobby April right now; that 3rd-quarter punt return was just a weird play. You can be sure he'll tell his guys to cover that ball up from now on, just in case.
Upon further review: The Ed Hochuli crew did a pretty nice job today. But I have to admit I don't understand the punt return in the 3rd. I was positive Jeff Burris called a fair catch, and when DeJuan Groce swatted at the ball in the end zone but didn’t knock it out, everyone in the stadium was fairly sure the play was dead, but the whistle never blew, and Burris tried to sneak away with the still unclaimed ball for a near-TD. But since both teams streamed onto the field, also thinking the play to be dead, Hochuli erased Burris' near 100-yard return for offsetting illegal substitutions and gave the ball to the Bengals on the 27. That part I understand. What I don't understand: how Burris can run back a punt he called a fair catch on and why the ball wasn't blown dead in the end zone. Hochuli did a lot better job of controlling post-play antics than last week's crew. After one altercation, he blew the play dead and appeared to warn both teams. That helped keep things clean. The Bengals complained about an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the 3rd that basically set up Wilkins' long FG, but they've only got themselves to blame – they were warned. The roughing the passer call against Little was also good; he launched himself at Kitna after the ball was released. Good job of officiating and keeping control of the game by Hochuli and crew.
Cheers: May not have been the loudest crowd of the year – the defense had to do a lot of cheerleading – but we got props from Steve Savard on radio during the game, thank you, and from Mike Martz after the game, thank you. The halftime show was a very good video tribute to Jim Hanifan, and the mayor declared today Jim Hanifan Day. Thank you, Coach. I'm not sending the 49ers any Christmas presents for beating the Eggles today, but I have cancelled those lumps of coal I was planning to send.
Who’s next?: The Rams clinch home field advantage for the playoffs with a win in Detroit next week. The Lions are 4-11 on the season, but are 4-3 at home. Defensively, they've got a big playmaker and Pro Bowler in Dre Bly – who you know will be up for this one – and a budding big playmaker in LB Boss Bailey. But who am I trying to kid? These are still the Lions. They're 24th in overall defense, 28th against the pass, 25th in sacks. To win, they need an opponent to kill themselves with mistakes, like Green Bay on Thanksgiving, or play completely ineptly on one side of the ball, like the Big Dead's defense in September, or Oakland's and Chicago's offenses in November. With the stakes what they are, I'm not looking for that out of the Rams at all next week, but they probably will need Bulger to have one of his better games. Detroit will probably go all-out to stop Faulk on the ground like they did Ahman Green in November.
The Lion "offense" is absolutely awful, barely managing 100 yards in Carolina Sunday. Joey Harrington has had an awful second season, with a QB rating around 60 and a lot of interceptions. And the Lions have been last in the league in rushing just about all season, so there's little help for Harrington there. Az Hakim is the leading receiver among their WRs, and he figures to be up for this game, too, but he's just not the impact player the Lions thought they were getting when they signed him away. Shockingly, the Lions have allowed just 9 sacks this season, but their offense is still lousy, #29 overall, and their only players who are even remotely imposing are K Jason Hanson and Hakim, only because he used to be part of the Greatest Show on Earth. I've said it once; I'll say it again – if the Rams are truly serious about their postseason aspirations, they have to take this game, no excuses. They certainly won't deserve HFA if they can't close the deal in Detroit.
Game stats from nfl.com