The victory Sunday clichés a playoff spot for Seattle, a team the 6-8 Rams defeated twice this season, and lowers the Seahawks’ “magic number” to one. If the Rams lose another game, or Seattle wins their finale at home, against the Falcons, the Rams will finish second in the NFC West, and probably won’t be a part of post-season.
The Saints took the lead for the last available playoff spot by beating the “Vickless” Falcons today, raising their season record to 7-8. However, the erratic Saints and embattled head coach Jim Haslett still must travel to North Carolina and defeat their division foe, the Panthers, to reach post season.
Since they hold the tiebreaker over the Rams, either the Panthers or Saints would deny the Rams the playoffs if they tie at 7-9 or 8-8. The Rams hold the tiebreaker over the Bucs if they manage to end up tied with all the other final wild card possibilities. With the Eagles and Jets coming in to play a beaten up St. Louis Rams club the last two games, it appears that any flicker of hope for the Rams is only a pipedream.
However, the lack of real hope does not detract from the importance of the final two games of a star-crossed season that apparently had only moderate weather in training camp as a positive. I say this knowing full well that a good portion of Rams fans would almost prefer that the team drop these final two contests. They are divided into two groups; those that are “pragmatic” and desire a higher draft choice in every round above all else; and those who simply hate the head coach and the organization so much they want them to see only the worst of times until their fraternity is appeased.
Since management has been very public in its support of Mike Martz and assured everyone that he will return as head coach in 2005, that second bunch is simply driven by a desire to see others do poorly in order to lift their own sadness in some way. With the decision on the future of the franchise, short term at least, already a fait accompli, it’s my opinion that those continuing to whine ad-nausea about Martz should simply find another team that they can feel comfortable rooting FOR. Fans that into their own self gratification aren’t wanted by the players or coaches, or for that matter other fans.
While the “realist” draftnik group with a less ego based take on the need to play well these last two home games have at least a point, I feel that the team can greatly benefit from giving their all and playing at top form against the Eagles and Jets, both headed for the playoffs long ago. A team at a crossroads cannot afford to fall apart just because the playoffs are no longer probable, or maybe even possible. Besides, it looks like the Rams will be somewhere from the 10th to the 17th pick no matter what they do, which isn’t a huge difference in available talent level in round one.
It’s games such as this that give an indication of the level of trust players have in their coaches, and gives coaches a chance to start culling the roster of quitters. It allows younger players the chance for more playing times, to show they have what it takes to be an NFL starter, and allows the core veterans to show their younger teammates what being a pro is all about.
Hopefully, a normally fair minded and realistic Edward Jones Dome crowd will show some appreciation for their NFL gladiators the last two weeks, and will come out to the games and make noise as if the team was 14-0. That’s a bit much to ask of any team’s fans, but the St. Louis faithful have shown their own class many times before in similar circumstances, most notably in 2002, when an 0-5 Rams team got a rousing welcome and proceeded to crush an undefeated Raiders club with an unknown backup quarterback named Marc Bulger leading the way.
I know Mike Martz wants his team to play their best ball against two top foes, albeit ones who are facing their own injury problems and fears of hurting their playoff run with further dings. A young team can grow by beating teams like the Eagles, especially on national TV. The Eagles have nothing tangible to play for, but with eight All-Pro’s still able to play, it would be a big win to beat them.
The Rams have played far better at home, and they have Bulger back at the helm after missing two weeks with a severely bruised shoulder. Keeping the Eagles defenders off #10 will be the ball game Monday night. So will getting a pass rush on Eagles passer Donovan McNabb early and often, enough that his head coach removes him to preserve him for the playoffs.
The Eagles have not been dominant as of late, and with their leading scorer, Terrell Owens out for the season, appear to be very beatable, but only if the Rams ignore their own broken bodies and hearts and get physical from the get go with the visitors. Hopefully, guys like Pisa Tinoisamoa, Adam Timmerman, Tom Nutten, Adam Archuleta, Travis Fisher, Marshall Faulk, and Bulger can hold their battered bodies together another week or two, and youngsters like Anthony Hargrove, Bryce Fisher, Blaine Saipaia, DeJuan Groce, Kevin Garrett, Kevin Curtis, Shaun McDonald, and Brandon Chillar step up in a big way.
Some players, like linebackers Tommy Polley, Trev Faulk, and Robert Thomas, defensive tackle Damione Lewis, and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, will be trying to show they actually belong in the NFL as starters. Upcoming free agent Antuan Edwards will be looking to cement a long-term job as the Rams free safety, and Steven Jackson will be looking to beat out Faulk as the 2005 starter heading to mini camps.
For Marshall Faulk, Marc Bulger, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Adam Timmerman, Andy McCollum, Jerametrius Butler, Travis Fisher, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Jimmy Kennedy, Ryan Pickett, and Orlando Pace, the final two games are all about leadership and professionalism, and the things that hold teams together or break them irreversibly apart.
That group comprises the bulk of the team’s salary cap the next few years, and are basically assured to be the core of the team next season and beyond, and their ability to keep the team going in a positive direction will be sorely tested as 2004 ends and 2005 begins.