EARTH CITY, Mo. – Although the St. Louis Rams came up short of a winning record and a shot at the postseason in 2012, they pointed to their performance in the difficult NFC West as progress.
The Rams went 4-1-1 against the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals last year, and that performance offered hope that with some improvement outside the division they could be in the mix in 2013.
Indeed, this season the Rams sit at 5-4 outside of the NFC West, with a chance to go to 6-4 if they win Sunday against Tampa Bay. Even with a loss to the Bucs, there would be tangible improvement in the team’s inter-division record, which was 3-7 a year ago.
But those strides really only mean something if done in conjunction with continued success in the division. That doesn’t have to mean another 4-1-1 record, but a reasonable facsimile would have been helpful.
Instead, the Rams sit at 1-4 against NFC West foes, with a trip to vaunted Seattle still waiting.
For their part, the Rams can’t quite put their finger on why they couldn’t combine improved performance outside the division with continued success in it.
“The NFL is weird,” guard Rodger Saffold said. “You can’t tell what’s going to happen. It’s nuts. At one point, we were undefeated in the [division] and then the next moment we’re down. But that’s what makes our division so competitive. This is competitive. It’s anybody’s game. It’s been nuts. It’s always back and forth.”
In fairness, the Rams find themselves in an NFC West that’s even better than it was a year ago. Through 14 weeks, the four teams have combined for a 37-19 record, the best of any division in the NFL. Seattle and San Francisco are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and Arizona is waiting to pounce on a playoff spot should someone in front of them slip up.
And though the Rams have long since been eliminated from postseason contention, they do have a chance to reach some benchmarks that would at least represent progress.
A win against the Bucs would lock up a winning record outside of the NFC West and allow the Rams to match last year’s win total with a game still to play. It would also keep them alive for a chance at a .500 record for the first time since 2006.
Those are goals the Rams still acknowledge harboring, but nobody will stray from the week-to-week cliché they take every game.
“We just want to finish up strong,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’re stressing improvement week after week after week.”
Quarterback Kellen Clemens added another incentive to the mix this week by mentioning that Sunday's game is a chance to finish strong in front of the home fans, another area that would represent progress. The Rams were 4-4 at home in 2012 (including a “home” game against New England in London). A win against Tampa Bay would leave the Rams at 5-3 at the Edward Jones Dome this year.
Despite that extra carrot, Clemens refused to look at what a positive result might mean for his team.
“It really doesn’t matter if we don’t win,” Clemens said. “So, all that stuff will play itself out, all the stats, all the neat little coincidences. But it doesn’t matter if we don’t win. So our focus in this locker room is just do our job Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, get some rest Saturday, and go out and win on Sunday.”
In looking closer at the Rams’ performance outside of the NFC West, there are a few notable reasons for an uptick this season.
First, St. Louis had the good fortune of facing the dreadful AFC South. That meant relatively easy wins against Jacksonville and Houston, plus a surprising but equally convincing win at Indianapolis. (Coincidentally, the Rams’ only home loss outside of the NFC West came against Tennessee, Fisher’s old team.) Fisher clearly knew his old division well and had his team ready to play.
More instructive, though, is the difference in turnover margin and running the ball. Against the NFC West the Rams are minus-3 in turnovers and average 99.8 yards on the ground and 3.99 yards per carry. Against opponents outside of the division, St. Louis averages 123.4 rushing yards per game and 4.55 yards per carry and is plus-13 in turnover margin.
Obviously, many of those numbers are the product of playing better teams on a regular basis within the NFC West. But Saffold also points to the idea that familiarity can be a blessing and a curse when teams know each other as well as the Rams know their division.
“I think that knowing that any given Sunday things can be different and preparing for the unexpected, that’s what helps you win games,” Saffold said. “Knowing the team can be harder than not knowing the team. You are never overlooked. It’s kind of crazy. Division games just seem so much more intense.”