Sunday Rewind: Young Rams taking more than baby steps
By Scott Garbarini
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The days of "The Greatest Show on Turf" may be long gone, but the same may soon be said about one of the darkest periods of the St. Louis Rams' history.
The calendar is about to turn to December and the Rams -- that's right, the St. Louis Rams -- stand in first place in their division. And while the disheveled state of the NFC West may have as much to do with that status as any factor, a few other indicators are emerging that these longstanding doormats really are a team on the rise.
First off, the Rams -- now tied with the sinking Seattle Seahawks for the top spot in the ignominious West following Sunday's breakthrough 36-33 victory at the scandal-ridden Denver Broncos -- have at long last found the solution to their prolonged problems at the quarterback position in rookie Sam Bradford. The No. 1 overall pick of April's draft is making all those pundits who lashed out at general manager Billy Devaney for choosing the former Heisman Trophy recipient over Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh eat crow with a splendid debut campaign likely to earn the ex-Oklahoma star some hardware at season's end, and his remarkably quick transition to the pro game has been a beacon of light to a franchise that's seen nothing but cloudy days over the past three years.
Bradford came through with the hallmark performance of his brief and promising career against the dismal Broncos, an organization clearly headed in a different direction under the misguided leadership of second-year head coach Josh McDaniels. The talented 23-year-old torched Denver's shoddy defense like a 10-year veteran, piling up personal-bests of 308 yards and three touchdowns in staking St. Louis to a 20-point second-half lead it nearly relinquished.
The outing wasn't just impressive, but historic as well, as Bradford became the first rookie in NFL history to throw for 300 yards and three scores without an interception.
Need more proof that the Rams are finally turning the corner? How about an aggressive defense that's among the league leaders in sacks and stopping the opposition on third down? Or a burgeoning home-field advantage at the Edward Jones Dome, where St. Louis has won four of six games so far in 2010 and held its foes under 17 points in all but one of those contests?
Now, there's still plenty of room for improvement, as evidenced by the 20 fourth-quarter points the Rams surrendered on Sunday that turned a laugher into a nail-biter. But with the Seahawks, the owners of four double-digit defeats in their last five games, having veered way off course as of late and neither Arizona nor San Francisco showing any traits of a contender worth taking seriously, a rags-to-riches turnaround is far from an impossibility.
|Sam Bradford torched Denver's shoddy defense like a 10-year veteran, piling up personal-bests of 308 yards and three touchdowns.|
It's probably only going to take eight wins to take the NFC West, and if the Rams are able to hold serve in their two remaining home dates (a Week 15 matchup against fellow upstart Kansas City followed by a clash with the 49ers) and prevail in at least one of two seemingly attainable road tilts within the division (at Arizona next week and the season finale in Seattle), a once- unthinkable goal of joining the NFC's postseason parade has at least become plausible.
St. Louis will have to acquit itself better on the road, where it had lost its first four bouts before holding on against Denver, in order to make the dream a reality. Then again, the Rams probably wouldn't have won Sunday's game had it been played earlier in the season, like when they were trounced by lowly Detroit by a 44-6 count in the Motor City on Oct. 10.
The team has come a long way since, and so has Bradford. In the Rams' six games that have followed that loss, he's thrown nine touchdown passes and just one interception.
Here's a few more thoughts about Sunday's happenings:
- The game of the day certainly lived up to its advance billing, with the Packers and NFC-leading Falcons putting on an edge-of-your seats thriller in front of a playoff-like atmosphere at the Georgia Dome. Both quarterbacks were masterful in Atlanta's 20-17 last-second victory, with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers skillfully engineering a game-tying 90-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes as part of a 344-yard day and the unflappable Matt Ryan delivering a fifth comeback win in the fourth quarter or overtime this season. While it's premature to label these teams as the two best in the NFC -- the Saints will also have a say in the matter and the Packers still are behind the Bears in the North -- don't be surprised if there's a rematch in store come January.
- And speaking of Chicago, in my midweek preview column I pointed out that Sunday would go a long way towards determining that team's rather questionable postseason credentials. Well, the Bears passed their legitimacy test with flying colors, taking down the previously-soaring Philadelphia Eagles with a 31-26 verdict to grab sole possession of the NFC North lead. An offense that's been stagnant for much of this year rose to life, posting a season-high in points and getting a marvelous game out of maligned quarterback Jay Cutler (247 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT), while the defense became the first of 2010 to intercept a pass from the resurrected Michael Vick.
- While many (including yours truly) believe San Diego is still the team to beat in what's essentially a two-horse AFC West race (enough already about the Raiders' candidacy as a viable contender), Kansas City's not going to make it easy for the streaking Chargers. The Chiefs were absolutely dominant on offense in Sunday's 42-24 road rout of problem-laden Seattle, with their league-best ground game churning out 270 of the team's 503 total yards and quarterback Matt Cassel tossing four touchdown passes. And there hasn't been a better wide receiver in football over the last seven weeks than Dwayne Bowe, who hauled in three of Cassel's scoring strikes in a 13-catch, 170-yard masterpiece and has now reached the end zone a startling 13 times during that span.
- Leslie Frazier's promotion seemed to provide an immediate spark to the rudderless Minnesota Vikings, who put forth a smart and inspired effort to down the unpredictable Washington Redskins in their new coach's debut. The Vikes overcame a first-half ankle injury to star running back Adrian Peterson with a stout defensive display and an uncharacteristically judicious job by Brett Favre (zero turnovers) in stopping an eight-game road losing streak with Sunday's 17-13 triumph. And in what could be perceived as one last subtle dig at the departed Brad Childress, a noticeably giddy Favre handed the game ball to Frazier afterward.
- At least the Tennessee Titans kept the fighting on the field this week. The only thing uglier than the nasty fourth-quarter slugfest between notoriously agitating Titans cornerback and Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson in the Texans' 20-0 win was the sickening showing by the Tennessee offense, which mustered a pitiful 162 yards and eight first downs against arguably the NFL's worst defense under the direction of overmatched rookie quarterback Rusty Smith. Losers of four straight, the Titans are as good as done in the AFC playoff race.
- On a more positive note, nice to see Jake Delhomme -- one of the NFL's real good guys -- get a small measure of revenge on his old Carolina team. The veteran quarterback, one of the many casualties of the penny-pinching Panthers' offseason roster purge, went 5-for-5 on the game-winning drive that saved the Cleveland Browns from a potentially-awkward home loss to the league's current bottom feeders. Then again, Delhomme helped set up that exciting finish in the 24-23 decision by throwing two interceptions in the third quarter, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
- Looking forward to next week, when there'll be two titanic matchups that will go a long way towards shaping the AFC landscape on the docket. The main event takes place in New England, where the Patriots and New York Jets renew their heated rivalry with first place in both the conference and East division on the line. Bragging rights in the AFC North will also be at stake when Pittsburgh, which was able to escape out of Buffalo with a 16-13 overtime win on Sunday, visits Baltimore in another pivotal grudge match.