Well, Mr. Bradford, I hope you enjoyed your honeymoon period in the NFL. You started all 16 games, revitalized a franchise, set some records and even had your face on the Madden 2012 cover for half a second. But becoming one of the fresh new faces of the NFL comes with a cost. The 2011 schedules came out today, and the NFL is throwing a battle royale in your honor, inviting you to the very toughest competition in the league. You'll face the winners of five of the last six Super Bowls, hosting only one of them, and only three non-conference opponents had records under .500.
Sounds like a tough road, right? In fact, it's being called the very toughest schedule in the league.
Week after week, you'll be taking the best shots from the best out there. Week after week, they'll come to see if you and these young upstart Rams have what it takes. The NFL is sending the axe gang after you. And it might get bloody.
The full hustle, after the break:
September: Beasts of the East
Week 1: Michael Vick, at full strength, is unleashed in St Louis.
When healthy last year, no player was more dangerous on the football field than this monster reborn. Suddenly a amrt, surgical passer, Vick makes you respect and defend every inch of turf on the field in front of him, and he has a trio of playmakers that are pure dynamite with the ball in hand: DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and LeSean McCoy. However, the surprisingly soft Eagles defense will give McDaniels an early opportunity to flex his muscles in what could be an epic shootout.
Week 2: Spagnuolo returns to his stomping grounds.
For the first time since winning the Super Bowl with the Giants, Spagnuolo and his band of castoff New Yorkers will return to the Meadowlands. And they'll be playing in Prime Time, on Monday Night Football for the first time in years.
It will be a homecoming for him and for the band of players Spags has recruited away from Big Blue, very possibly including DT Barry Cofield. However, they'll face a much more dangerous Giants offense than the one Spags practiced against, with receivers Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham forming one of the best receiving trios in the league. These first two games leave just one more NFC East opponent to face.
Week 3: Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata try to inflict some sophomore slumping
While Ray Lewis is still going strong, the Ravens' 10th-ranked defense succeeded more on guile and positioning than the raw disruption we've come to expect. They ranked in the bottom quartile of the NFL in sacks with 27, only four more than the league-low Broncos. So... we're saying there's a chance? But Baltimore is known for seeking to punish the game's young initiates into the pocket, so the O-line will have to earn its keep. This will be the first of three games against the AFC North.
October: Little Rest for the Wicked
Week 4: The Rebuilt Redskins want their pride back
Mike Shanahan's Redskins gave up Sam Bradford's first career win in 2010 back in Week 3, here in the Dome. 53 weeks later they will come back to town, looking for revenge. Easier said than done, though, for a team in desperate need of a rebuild and with few draft picks (and no free agency, for now) to work with.
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Traveling to Hallowed Ground
Not only is Lambeau Field one of the most historic patches of grass in the game, it's also the home of the 2010 Super Bowl champion Packers, a rising power in the league who may only be getting better. If the Rams have even a .500 record at this point, this could be flexed to an afternoon matchup, pitting two of the game's rising stars at quarterback against each other. This game serves as one of the toughest and highest-profile tests the Rams will face. Good thing they'll be well-rested.
Week 7: Bright Lights, (really) Big Stadium
The Rams continue their post-bye week road trip by visiting Jerry Jones' billion-dollar palace and the enigma that is his Cowboy team. Are they the team that played inspired football under Jason Garrett, after the Son of Bum was fired? Or are they the lackluster bunch of overhyped stars that couldn't seem to jell for most of 2010?
Week 8: Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and their bag of tricks come to town
Perhaps no offense is more unpredictable and potentially unstoppable than that of Sean Payton and the Saints. This will be the third consecutive year that these teams meet, and the Rams have fought tooth and nail into the fourth quarter in each of the past two matchups. Will this be the year they put together a complete game against these formidable tricksters?
November: Division play finally opens
Week 9: Whoever the Cardinals are, the Rams are coming.
The Rams won in the desert last year for the first time in years, breaking an eight-game losing streak against their division opponents. Now they'll arrive in the unfamiliar role of playing the new big kid on the block, as the only team in the division with an established quarterback. That is, unless Arizona trades for Donovan McNabb or Kevin Kolb...
Week 10: Colt McCoy and Pat Shurmur welcomes their old friends to Cleveland.
McCoy and Bradford may be young, but they already have an old rivalry with three meetings under their belts. Depending on how Shurmur and McCoy evolve in their first season as Mike Holmgren's adepts, and how much chemistry McDaniels and Bradford generate, this could be a very intriguing matchup of emerging young teams. Or, it could be a chance for one of these two teams to get their third win on the season in a second-tier match of bullied vs bullied, with fan bases of the game's loser sharpening their pitchforks.
Week 11: Seattle really, really wants to score more than three points this time
The Rams reversed their fortunes against the accursed Seahawks with a quickness in their first matchup last year, a 20-3 suffocation in the Dome that electrified Rams fans. With the whole division playing a tough 2011 slate, this game could have legitimate playoff implications ... and relaunch last year's debate over playoff reseeding.
Week 12: What, the Cardinals again? Didn't we just beat you?
Yes, Ken Whisenhunt's Warner-less contraption of a team comes back for more punishment, just three weeks later for a double-dip of division play. Is this a must-win for the Rams? Yes. This is a must-win.
December: Hell might be frozen over after all
Week 13: A first look at the new-look 49ers
Another week, another quarterback mystery in the NFC West, and another soft secondary for McDaniels to attack. The Rams found success via the air versus the Niners last year, but absolutely failed in their attempts to grind anything out in the run game -- losing a crucial matchup in Candlestick last year with ultra-conservative and ultra-unsuccessful second-half ground play. This rematch will be a showcase for the evolving dynamic between McDaniels and Spagnuolo.
Week 14: Back to Qwest, back in Prime Time
Last year's Week 17 Sunday Night Rams/Seahawks matchup -- the very last game of the 2010 season -- was one of the most-watched games of the year. Why? Because these teams were two of the greats? No, because the stakes were so laughably high, two sub-.500 teams playing in a win-and-you're-in not-so-sudden-death slogfest. However, the ratings were high and the NFL hopes to catch lightning in a bottle twice with a December rematch, again with playoff implications potentially looming. Just a note to Spagnuolo here: please, please don't start Kevin Dockery. Please.
Week 15: Who Dey? (No, really, who are dey?)
The Bengals come to St Louis, most probably without Carson Palmer, without Chad Ochocinco, without Terrell Owens, and very possibly without longtime coach Marvin Lewis, whose head will certainly be on or near the chopping block by this point in the season. So, uh, how about that Rey Maualuga?
Week 16: The good news is, tomorrow you get to open your presents.
Christmas Eve, snow game.
You kick off against Pittsburgh.
Enough said? Enough.
January: Win and/or Go Home
Week 17: San Francisco, are you ready for this?
With just a couple non-conference wins and strong play against NFC West opponents, our beaten and bruised Rams could very well still be in the hunt, as could the 49ers, especially if the playoff picture is as tangled as last year's. It's win or go home time, boys! Or, it could just be homecoming time, a chance to give the fans a positive note to end a brutally difficult coming-of-age season on.