Up until 2:30 in the afternoon, local time, fortune appeared to be smiling on the Rams in their bid for an upset road win.
Saturday night before game day, Mizzou alum Danario Alexander won a hell of a bet against proud Sooner Sam Bradford. His 11th-ranked Tigers rode the collective roar of 71,000+ to a decisive upset of the top-ranked Oklahoma Sooners, forcing Bradford to wear Mizzou gear all this week of practice as a result, and giving the Rams ultra-competitive QB an extra chip on his shoulder for Sunday's game.
With the Florida sun shining down midway through the second quarter, Steven Jackson plowed past Rams icon Eric Dickerson to the top spot in the Rams career rushing yardage list. It was a three-yard forward plunge for a first down that, like all of Jackson's runs on the day, the Bucs had no ability to stop.
But neither player was in much of a mood to celebrate after Sunday's outcome, a crushing defeat against an eminently beatable opponent.
"It's bittersweet," Jackson said. "It's something that I've worked really hard for, for a long time -- a goal that I actually set coming in as a rookie in 2004. So to achieve it means a lot. I just really wish that we were able to cap it off with a win. It's kind of hard to be celebrating about an individual's success when it's a team sport."
This defeat was finished in the game's last seconds, but was as slow-developing and inexorable as a mudslide. While the first-half Rams firmly and patiently built a foundation for dominance, the second-half Rams seemed committed to undercutting themselves and letting their control of the game erode away. And fans were left wondering which team we're rooting for.
The Good Half
First-half Steven Jackson got plenty of work, carrying the ball 12 times for 74 yards and creating short fields for Bradford and his receivers to operate. First-half Bradford completed only 6 passes, but two were short touchdown throws to Michael Hoomanawanui and Danny Amendola. And the first-half offensive line created a stout pocket from which to work.
The Rams' first-half defense forced three Tampa drives backwards on the field, and held the Bucs to a measly 87 total yards. They hit and harassed Josh Freeman into multiple poor throws, and ground an unfocused Bucs running game to a halt. And the first-half Rams opened up a yawning 17-3 gulf against a Tampa team that seemed determined to drive its own already-small crowd out of the building.
Few teams the Rams have faced have appeared as poorly coached and as undisciplined as these Buccaneers, who amassed 12 penalties on the day and repeatedly tried to give the game away to their opponent. The first-half Rams appeared to outclass these Bucs by a wide margin. But the second-half Rams gave right back.
The Bad Half
Throughout halftime, Rams fans on Twitter bantered about wanting to see a killer instinct from this team, wanting them to keep their foot on the gas pedal. Even with victory seemingly in hand, fans are wary of time on the clock, all too aware of the tendency of the second-half Rams to shoot themselves in the foot.
Second-half Bradford opened play by throwing a ball over the top of his wide receiver, Laurent Robinson. All he had to do was look up, put up his hands, and catch it, and it was a touchdown. But Robinson (whose whole season thus far has been stuck in this somnolent second-half mode) watched it fly harmlessly overhead, then turned back to the sideline in frustration and disbelief.
Second-half Jackson plowed gamely on, rushing 10 more times for 36 yards despite a neck stinger, but was unable to push the pile past the Tampa 40. His last carry, and the Rams' last meaningful offensive play, came on an inside draw on 3rd-and-11. Second-half Jackson had 7 yards and daylight in front of him, but couldn't escape the desperate grasp of the Bucs' Tim Crowder. It was Crowder's only tackle of the day.
Dropped interceptions by the second-half defense (James Laurinaitis on a beautiful bit of interior pass coverage, and OJ Atogwe on the equivalent of an infield popup), and lapses on easily-defendable plays gave momentum, and eventually the lead, back to Tampa. LeGarrette Blount is a hard runner, but not subtle or shy about contact. Several times the Rams had him dead to rights, only to find themselves unable to come up with the tackle.
A complete lack of scoring punch for the Rams in the second half iced it. And a golden opportunity to get above .500, to keep pace with the suddenly surging Seahawks in the NFC West, to establish and maintain dominance against an inferior opponent, was lost. And Rams fans in the aftermath struggled to fit together the two halves of the team they just watched.
Missing in Action
Danario Alexander barely saw the field, and his presence was sorely missed by a team that needed just one scoring drive, just one more first down on either of two second-half drives that reached Tampa territory but stalled. His absence, like that of the Rams' offense in the second half, was a bit of a mystery.
"They're in there for certain plays," coach Steve Spagnuolo said, somewhat obtusely, of Danario and the receivers. "When those are dialed up, he goes in. It's not 'You have this series, you have that series.' "
#84 may not have been on the field, but several times Bradford threw patterns that appeared to be tailor-made for the lanky wideout, including the missed touchdown pass to Laurent Robinson at the start of the third quarter, and several lobs thrown to the undersized Brandon Gibson against press coverage.
On defense, a fully healthy David Vobora -- an established force against the run last year -- can't seem to get out of whatever doghouse he's in. Prior to this week, the aggressive and sure-tackling linebacker had seen only 39 snaps for the season. He racked up two special teams tackles Sunday, but watched from the sideline as key playing time was doled out to Bryan Kehl in his stead.
The Rams have much to take stock of this week, as they return home to face Carolina, and to retire Isaac Bruce's number. They will again be looking to hit .500, and to regain some positive momentum as they head into the bye. Soon, the first half of this Rams season will be complete, a largely successful half that could have been so much better. The character of this Rams team will be tested in the season's second half, as the schedule gets tougher and the stakes get higher.
If this week is any indication, that second-half Rams team has some growing up to do.