There was a rare sighting Sunday night on the various football highlight shows on TV. As each program flashed its graphic on the NFC playoff picture, there were the Rams listed under “in the hunt.”
As strange as it sounds, the Rams have wedged their way into the playoff hunt by virtue of losing only once in the past four games. They are in the conversation, but just at a whisper. They are in the picture, but it may take a “Where’s Waldo?” eye to spot them.
Nonetheless, there they are at 5-6-1, among a cluster of seven teams with records ranging from 7-5 to 5-7.
“I mean, that’s where we planned to be,” defensive end Chris Long said Sunday, following the Rams’ 16-13 overtime victory over San Francisco. “Consistency’s going to be a key here. We really have to be able to move on and focus on our next opponent.”
Coach Jeff Fisher heartily endorses the last part of Long’s remark. That’s because Fisher steadfastly declines to discuss the big picture when it comes to wins and losses. When asked Monday if his team could make the playoffs, Fisher didn’t blink.
“You know, this team’s focused on Buffalo,” he replied. “That’s our next opponent.”
OK, Fisher may have the blinders on, but how does he prevent each and every one of the 53 Rams players from daydreaming about the postseason?
“There’s too much that can happen right now,” Fisher said. “I don’t even know what the record is for some teams in the (conference), so we just go play. That’s it. Those things take care of themselves.
“We have a huge challenge this week. We’ve only won one on the road this far. We’re playing a team that’s very, very similar to ourselves — records similar, statistically they’re similar. They play well at home and they’re still in the hunt, so we’ve got our hands full.”
Led by former Ram Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, Buffalo remains alive in the AFC wild-card chase. The Bills are 3-2 at home, and despite a frequently porous defense are capable of putting points on the board.
Following the Buffalo contest, the Rams close out their home schedule Dec. 16 against a Minnesota squad (6-6) that is only 1-5 on the road this season. But then come two more road games to conclude the regular season: at Tampa Bay (6-6) on Dec. 23 and at Seattle (7-5) on Dec. 30.
So there are no elite teams in the Rams’ closing stretch of games, but four decent ones. Tampa Bay is only average at home (3-3), but everyone in the NFL knows how tough it is to win in Seattle, where the Seahawks are 5-0 so far this season.
Because of how tough Seattle plays at CenturyLink Field, they figure to be the toughest team to catch for the second wild-card berth in the NFC. Three of Seattle’s four remaining contests are at home, and all three are against the rest of the NFC West: Arizona this Sunday, San Francisco on Dec. 23, and then the Rams. The only road game for the Seahawks is against Buffalo (in Toronto) on Dec. 16.
So realistically speaking, the Rams may need to run the table and finish at 9-6-1 to return to the postseason for the first time since 2004.
“We’re not trying to look too far ahead,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “Just trying to win them one at a time and the next challenge is Buffalo. So we’ve got to relax, recover, watch some film, and move on.”
That’s probably the best approach. After all, the Rams have yet to win more than two games in a row at any point this season. Their offense didn’t manage a touchdown in the 16-13 triumph over the 49ers. And there’s the experience of what happened after the 24-24 tie against the 49ers three weeks earlier.
The feeling after that tie — both inside and outside the locker room — was that the Rams were gaining momentum, gaining confidence, and might be on the verge of a breakout with the dysfunctional New York Jets coming to town. Instead, the Rams played perhaps their worst game of the season in a 27-13 loss to the Jets.
“I know it’s cliché to say we had a hangover from a game,” Long said, referring to the aftermath of the tie against the 49ers. “We just didn’t come out with the same intensity in the next game. So we need to bring it this next week.”
So even after slaying the dragon in the rematch with the 49ers, no one at Rams Park should feel like they’ve arrived as a team just because they upset one of the NFC’s best teams.
“By no means are they going to be overconfident, if that’s what you’re suggesting,” Fisher said. “They have confidence in what they’re doing, but they also respect each week’s opponent.
“You can take a lot of positive things from what’s happened. We’ve won two in a row now; we’ve won two in the division in a row. We’re undefeated in the division.
“But, that does you no good unless you win the next game. We’ve done some good things, but we’ve also let some games slip away early that we should not have. The focus continues to be, bring the young players around, try to minimize ... the rookie mistakes, the young-player mistakes, and then prepare yourself for the next opponent.”