SAN FRANCISCO -- Always a realist and one of the few athletes unafraid to keep tabs on the bigger picture, St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis was well aware of the already thin margin for error his team faced if it wanted to sneak into the postseason.
Having reached December, the time of the year when wild scenarios are being tossed around and the Playoff Machine is cranking at full gear, the Rams’ formula was simple: win out and they’d have a shot to keep playing.
Winning out would have meant winning five in a row to get to 10-6 and into a crowded NFC playoff picture. In reality, the loss of quarterback Sam Bradford on Oct. 20 was probably the death knell, but after Sunday’s 23-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, whatever hopes the Rams still harbored probably faded away for good.
The Rams now sit a full three games behind San Francisco for the final wild-card berth with four games to play.
A frustrated Laurinaitis acknowledged the long shot that still remains until the Rams are officially and mathematically done, but he had already shifted his focus to what the goal now has to be. It’s not much different than the original, just with one less win and one more loss on the ledger.
“I still think we’ve got to be 9-7,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s got to be the mentality. Hey, 9-7, winning season. We can’t have it be under .500 or anything like that. We’ve got to say, ‘Hey, 9-7.’ And it doesn’t get any easier.”
Indeed it doesn’t, as the Rams have a trip to Arizona, a team playing well of late, waiting next week, followed by home games against New Orleans and Tampa Bay before closing the season at Seattle.
That isn’t to say the Rams are throwing in the towel. Not that any team or player would admit to being out of the mix before the people crunching the numbers tell them they are, but offensive lineman Rodger Saffold is unwilling to concede anything for the final four games.
“I still think we have a chance,” Saffold said. “I’m not putting anything behind this team. We are just going to go in as if there is no tomorrow, so I expect us to once again have that fire on the inside and come out and practice to the best intensity of this team, what we are capable of, and as you guys know, after we have a loss we come out fighting even harder. This is going to be a really, really tough week next week. “
By the time the Rams head to the Pacific Northwest for the season finale, it’s almost certain they won’t have much to play for in terms of postseason spoils. Still, there is much to be gained in the final quarter of the regular season.
As the youngest team in the league, the Rams have to find a way to continue to get better. In some ways, the final four games need to be something like a child’s growth chart. The Rams need to measure out a little taller after every week.
The Rams have quietly believed that 2014 is the year they could target for a breakthrough. With that in mind, visible progress is of the utmost importance in the final month. The Rams have to be a better team at the end of December than they were in November, much like they did last month, and how they did in October after September.
Growth may not necessarily come in the form of wins and losses. As Laurinaitis pointed out, the Rams play a tough slate down the stretch. But some sort of tangible progress for key youngsters at safety, cornerback and receiver would go a long way in determining the shape of the offseason.
It also means finding a way to pin down and create some level of consistency from week to week. The Rams were rarely in Sunday’s loss to the Niners.
Playing top teams like the Saints and Seahawks and an improving Arizona gives the Rams ample opportunity to show that they have the car in drive rather than stuck in neutral or, worse, reverse.
"I think for everybody individually you’ve got to see the green arrow pointing up," Laurinaitis said. "You have got to look back at the end of the season and say, ‘Did I get better each and every game?’ I think right now in some of our young players you see that, and I think overall as a team we have got to see that. So this one hurts, it stings because I believe everybody in this locker room came in expecting to win, and we’ll go out next week and have the same feeling. We’ve got to pick it up and just make plays when they present themselves."