NFC West gap grows larger for Rams

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In the rough and tumble NFC West division, one team was supposed to emerge as a sleeper capable of challenging the powerhouse Seahawks and 49ers.

That team was on the field at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday afternoon but it wasn't the one that many thought it would be during the preseason.

In watching the Arizona Cardinals blast the St. Louis Rams for a 30-10 victory, it became quite clear one team has exceeded expectations, and that team is not the Rams.

"I'm disappointed that we didn't play better in the division," coach Jeff Fisher said. "If you're going to do anything in this league, you've got to win football games in your division and we haven't done that this year."

The defeat dropped the Rams to 5-8 on the season and 1-4 in divisional contests, leaving them almost certain to finish in the NFC West basement. Along with that, the Rams must also swallow this sobering reality: They are now one more division opponent removed from being contenders.

This from a team that in 2012 finished with the best record in NFC West games at 4-1-1.

"It's extremely frustrating to me and I don't know if it's a yellow or red flag but it's something you better pay attention to and I think for us quite frankly it's a shot in the gut," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "Last year it was something we could hang our hat, you were like ‘Gosh, we let some slide but we made a statement in our division.'

"As a team you have to look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘Hey, what do we have to do to fix this?' Because that's one place you want to be great is in your division and quite frankly we have been pretty poor there."

A trip to Seattle is the Rams' lone remaining divisional matchup, a game that depending on how the Seahawks approach it could easily leave the Rams with just a single divisional win for the season.

That win came way back in the season opener against these Cardinals, a game that the Rams stole in the closing moments or they'd be staring at a winless divisional record this season. Since, Arizona has been the team making the type of weekly progress many expected of the Rams.

Witness the emergence of a young receiver such as Arizona's Michael Floyd or the continued improvement of a rookie defensive back such as safety Tyrann Mathieu. Arizona coach Bruce Arians has his team embracing his system and making the necessary adjustments to cover for weaknesses on the offensive line.

Arizona punished the Rams on Sunday, winning by 20 in a final score that could have been worse. The Cardinals outgained the Rams by 112 yards, taking advantage of a whopping 11 penalties on St. Louis. The Rams have now been outscored by 59 points in their four division losses.

A year ago, the Rams beat Arizona by a combined 28 points in two meetings. Those Cardinals ended up 5-11 after a dreadful 1-11 finish. After pounding the Rams on Sunday, Arizona is 8-5 and firmly in the playoff picture.

"I'm not sure why last year we did so well in the division and this year we didn't," defensive end Chris Long said. "It's disappointing because we feel like we play good, physical football and that's what this division is about. But we just haven't played well enough in the division. [Arizona] has gotten a lot better, so they deserve their credit. They're a well-coached group of guys and have a lot of weapons. We just got beat bad today."

It's worth noting that the Rams have played three division games without the services of quarterback Sam Bradford, who engineered the comeback win against the Cardinals. Bradford likely could have done enough to get the Rams a win against Seattle in those teams' only meeting.

However, the way the Rams have been pushed around by Arizona and San Francisco the past two weeks, it's hard to say whether his presence alone might have made that much of a difference in those contests.

Regardless, Bradford's injury only adds another element to the discussion of where the Rams currently rate in the division. Carson Palmer's 84 percent completion rate Sunday was the best by an NFC quarterback with 25 or more attempts this season.

That speaks to the Rams' secondary struggles but also the larger point that Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco have less tenuous quarterback situations than the Rams heading toward 2014.

Sunday's loss also officially eliminated the Rams from postseason contention though any of those hopes seemed to ride off on a golf cart with Bradford after he injured his knee in week 7.

"It's a little alarming when you are getting closer to the top like last year and now you are at the bottom of the division," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "I think we have a really good team, really good defense, really good offense, we have a really good coaching staff. We have just got to keep getting better each and every week and make sure we better this team for next year."

To keep up with the Joneses in the NFC West, that progress is going to have come much faster.