Before the season started, I had this Rams team pegged for a 5-11 season. Mild improvement, based on a stronger showing at home (check), but nothing earth-shattering. I figured it would be too soon for all the offensive pieces to come together, especially given a threadbare offensive line, and was ready for a "wait 'til next year" approach to the season.
Well, here's a Monday morning toast to being wrong.
At 3-2 and being ranked in the upper half of NFL Power Rankings for the first time in approximately forever, based on an opportunistic pass defense and a young offense that is starting to percolate with big play confidence, it's worth re-evaluating the schedule and seeing what we can see.
Week 6: at Miami Dolphins - WINNABLE.
Now, this is a game that has actually gotten tougher in my estimation, as Ryan Tannehill has been quite good over the first month of his NFL career. Also, the Rams will have to prove that they can play as tough on the road as they have at home. This is hardly an inked-in win, but we should have a fighting chance.
Week 7: vs Green Bay Packers -
LOSS - WINNABLE?
The Packers are reminiscent of the 2000 or 2002 version of the Mike Martz Rams. You can still see flashes of their offensive potency, and Aaron Ridgers remains one of the premier talents in the game. But something's not clicking. I don't know if it's ennui in the play-calling, or a deteriorating defense, or what, but no Packers team that I know would have allowed themselves the awful losses to Seattle and Indianapolis that this Packers team has. They face the Houston Texans in Week 6, and could very well be a 2-4 team coming into St Louis in Week 7. That's shocking. And maybe more than a little telling.
Week 8: "vs" New England Patriots - LOSS
I'm not going to kid anyone here. As much as I'd like to believe we can get into Josh McDaniels' head, or disrupt Tom Brady's connection with Wes Welker, this offense is too balanced, and too good. They appear to have ironed out their early season wrinkles and disagreements (Julian Edelman? Really?) that helped fuel an upset loss to Arizona. Add on to this a "home" game six time zones away from home, and you have few makings for a win.
Week 9: bye
Week 10: at San Francisco 49ers - LOSS
The Rams will get Scott Wells back from injury, and might be tempted to slide Rob Turner over to guard. That won't make enough of a difference against the most complete team in the league. The Rams should compete for four quarters here, but our run defense is still a work in progress, and the 49ers are just steamrolling right now.
Week 11: vs New York Jets -
I don't like to guarantee a victory, but this is a game the Rams should win 90% of the time. The Jets are downright awful, and on the backslide of the schedule the coaches will be spending more time updating resumes than watching game film, and the franchise will be purely playing for draft position. I suppose if Tim Tebow starts at quarterback, we have to allow for the guiding hand of Tebow magic, but there are no Von Millers on this defense to carry it home.
Week 12: at Arizona Cardinals -
Every road game in the NFC West will be a rough go, but the Rams gained a measure of psychological advantage over the Cardinals with their 17-3 dismantling of a previously pretty good team. I like their chances, but expect this game to be closer for longer than Thursday's matchup.
Week 13: vs San Francisco 49ers - LOSS
We really don't know how this San Francisco team will react to conference play, whether any loose threads can be found that might help unravel this beast. As of right now, all five of their games have come against non-conference opposition. By Week 13, they will have played everyone once, though, and a lot more film will be on hand for Jeff Fisher's staff to prepare with. Also, this is my tentative date for Danny Amendola's return, which adds a dimension to the Rams offense. All of which gives us a 2-in-10 chance of winning, in my mind.
Week 14: at Buffalo Bills -
Buffalo shows some sparks every now and then, and a December game up north is no picnic for any dome team. But this Bills team is, somewhat surprisingly after loading up on defensive talent, every bit as bad as all the rest, and every bit as beatable. If the Rams play their game, they should have more than enough chances for the win.
Week 15: vs Minnesota Vikings - WINNABLE
Suddenly, this seemingly forgettable matchup just might have playoff implications. The Vikings are doing far better than I (or many others) expected them to, and may just be a competitor in the NFC North. Christian Ponder's accuracy has taken a leap forward (while working mostly short routes), and Percy Harvin is a real weapon. However, our cornerbacks are excelling at shutting down one-weapon offenses (see Fitzgerald, Larry), and we have the home field advantage on our side.
Week 16: at Tampa Bay Bucs - WINNABLE
This will not be an easy game by any chance. I don't place the same odds here as on some of the others, but this is a game against an opponent that should be beatable by this team. Now, I said the same thing two seasons ago before Josh Freeman executed one of his patented miracle fourth-quarter comebacks against us. But if you're going to play a late December game on the road, there are far worse places than Tampa to do so.
Week 17: at Seattle Seahawks -
Seattle is still an ominous place to play, particularly to end a season, as the Rams well know. Sam Bradford still must have nightmares about 2010's season-ender in Seattle, with the playoffs on the line. His mental toughness will be put back into the fire this week, to be either melted down or re-forged and made harder, stronger, and sharper than before. The Seattle defense is not going to get any worse in this span, and they are already quite good. Marshawn Lynch is still a beast, and Robert Turbin has untapped powers. But ... this rivalry has traditionally come down to coaching.
Mike Martz flummoxed Mike Holmgren for most of his time here; when he left, Holmgren and Carroll tag-teamed and turned dominant against our overmatched assistants-in-training. But Jeff Fisher pulled out a whole-team victory over Seattle in Week 4, embarrassing Carroll in the process. This game gives the Rams a chance to establish a decided edge in this column, and re-stoke a rivalry, perhaps by knocking Seattle out of the postseason in the process.
So, that's eight "winnable" games in our final eleven. That isn't the same as predicting eight wins in our final eleven. The football bounces in strange ways, and the rule of Any Given Sunday now fully applies to this team. Add in the mounting injury toll and the necessity of Sam Bradford to find a comfortable target in Danny Amendola's absence, and you have a challenging road ahead.
But this team is too well-coached and too opportunistic to let more than a few of these to slide by. Counting the Jets game at home as a gimme, I can see enough wins on the table to get to 7-9 easily, with an outside chance at 8-8 or 9-7. That's a significant improvement over what I had originally forecast for this team, and should be enough to put Jeff Fisher's name on the Coach of the Year trophy as well.
Better yet, the best is still to come for this franchise, no matter how they finish this season.