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Opportunity knocks, but can the Rams answer?

Opportunity knocks, but can the Rams answer?

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The St. Louis Rams played the San Francisco 49ers at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo.
December 26, 2010 -- Rams wide receiver Brandon Gibson runs between teammates during pregame introductions before during a game between the St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo. Chris Lee

The Rams have suffered plenty this season.

Crippling injuries, agonizing growth pains, debilitating mishaps, infuriating officiating blunders – there has been lots of cringe-worthy stuff. Exasperating come-from-ahead losses to Arizona, Oakland and Tampa Bay threatened to derail their turnaround bid.

But circumstances have presented them a unique opportunity. The NFC West is terrible this season, worse than any NFL division has ever been.

So the Rams will have an opportunity to earn a playoff berth Sunday night in Seattle. In a winner-take-all showdown, the Rams have a chance to erase all the negativity of recent seasons and gain a home playoff game.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis told reporters after the Rams dispatched the hapless 49ers 25-17. “A win-and-you’re-in kind of situation is what you play for and I’m excited about it. I’m looking forward to it.”

After staggering through their previous three seasons 6-42, the rebuilding Rams can climb back to respectability. They are just one victory away.

 “We’re playing another tough divisional foe that matches up with us well,” running back Steven Jackson said. “But I think guys showed today that we’re hungry. We’re hungry to be successful.”

(The NFL, which moved the game to prime time for national TV, must be pulling for the Rams. The league would rather have a mediocre team reach the playoff bracket than a truly dreadful one. The Seahawks are atrocious. Their presence in the postseason would be a travesty.)

This is the biggest week in Steve Spagnuolo’s coaching career. He has the better team. It’s up to him and his staff to prepare the Rams to succeed.

They are relatively healthy. They got through the San Francisco game without taking any more major injury hits.

They did enough good things to shake off a terrible second quarter and finish out the game in control.

The defensive front four applied steady pressure Sunday, chasing around quarterbacks Troy and Alex Smith and forcing turnovers. This allowed defensive coordinator Ken Flajole to dial back his reliance on blitzing to disrupt the passing game.

A similar push next week could cause similar havoc, since veteran Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has grown skittish in his twilight years and alternate Charlie Whitehurst is raw.

Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford regrouped Sunday and delivered a clutch performance, reassuring everybody in and around the organization. He snapped to after a couple of rough outings and picked the 49ers apart, completing 28 of 37 passes for 292 yards, one TD and a 107.0 passer rating.

Rookie receiver Danario Alexander continued his development by catching six passes for 99 yards, including a 46-yard bomb over the top. Once again he played like the big-play receiver this offense has lacked.

Rookie tight end Michael Hoomanawanui could return from his high ankle sprain and add another big weapon to the offense.

The Rams will need a much better rushing attack in Seattle, especially between the tackles. Did they ever block 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith Sunday?

The interior Rams offensive linemen protected Bradford well enough, but they got manhandled again on running plays. The team must upgrade its personnel during the offseason, but for the near term the incumbents must muscle up.

Jackson rushed 24 times for 48 yards against San Francisco. That is embarrassing.

Also, the Rams offense must cope with the crowd noise in Seattle. This will be a huge challenge for a team that allowed visiting Chiefs fans to distract them two weeks ago in the Edward Jones Dome.

Can they keep their false start penalties to a minimum? Or will they put Bradford in a series of bad down-and-distance situations?

If the Rams can run the ball, handle the noise and avoid untimely turnovers, they should have enough offense to win. If they can limit the big plays, they should have enough defense and special teams too.

But can they make it happen? Can they actually rise to the occasion in their biggest game since their glory days?

The stakes will be massive, bigger than anything many of these guys have ever played for.

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