Rams Embrace Opportunity for Unblemished Division Record

Posted Dec 26, 2012

Be it hulking defensive tackle Michael Brockers, hard-hitting linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar or just about any move the Rams made in the offseason in the draft or free agency, each transaction was done with a purpose.

In the NFL, like anywhere else, the quickest path from point A to point B is a straight line and the closest thing this league offers to a straight line going from staying home for the postseason to a playoff opportunity is winning within your division.

That’s why Rams head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead set out to find ways to make the Rams competitive against the likes of the 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals first and everybody else second.

“In order to compete, in order to be a consistent playoff contender, you have to have success in the division,” Fisher said. “You have to build yourself for success in the division. I think we’re on the right path – we’re not there yet – but we’re on the right path.”

Sunday’s game against Seattle represents an opportunity for the Rams to prove that they are well beyond simply on the right track when it comes to divisional play.

Much to the surprise of many pundits, the Rams own a 4-0-1 record against NFC West foes, including impressive home wins against the Niners and Seahawks and a hard-fought tie in San Francisco.

A win against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on Sunday would allow the Rams to complete their season with a perfect record against the division that, by the numbers, has been the toughest in the NFL this season.

While the Rams are disappointed that Sunday’s game will be their last of the 2012 season, perhaps none of the benchmarks they can hit with a win against the freight train that is Seattle right now would be more important heading into the offseason than finishing unbeaten in the NFC West.

“It’s huge, it’s huge, it’s huge,” left tackle Rodger Saffold said. “What it tells me is that this team just capitalized on the games that we had to win. We lost so many close games. The tie hurt us a little bit but just being able to say that we were undefeated in the division and move forward with that, that would be huge.”

With San Francisco and Seattle leading the way with 10-4-1 and 10-5 records, respectively, the NFC West carries the best winning percentage of all divisions at .551, narrowly edging out the 0.55 put together by the NFC North heading into the season’s final week.

In their four wins and a tie within the division, the Rams have outscored their opponents by a total of 107-70, an average of 21.4 to 14.

That average score is a prime example of the kind of football required to win in the division.

“It’s the MFL, I mean, it’s the ‘Manly Football League,’” Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “That’s what it is and that’s the way it’s going to be and of course, this division is pretty interesting as far as the way that it’s evolving. It’s starting to remind me a whole lot of that first division I was in, in Chicago where you buckle up, you take two chin straps and two mouth pieces to the ball game, and then you go.

The first step in the process of building a contender within the division is identifying the build and makeup of the other teams. In the case of the Rams, their NFC West counterparts all bear some striking resemblances to one another.

Of course, San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle aren’t all created equal but they do operate on similar philosophies. At the foundation of that are some of the league’s toughest, most physical defenses, the kind that are more than happy to come up and hit you in the mouth.

Through 15 games, stout defense has been the obvious hallmark of the NFC West. Heading into the final week, the division boasts the league’s No. 2 (San Francisco), No. 4 (Seattle), No. 12 (Arizona) and No. 15 (Rams) teams in total defense.

No other division in football has more teams in the top 15 in total defense and only the NFC North even has three teams in that group. That the division has a cluster of dominant defenses comes as a surprise to no one in the Rams locker room.

Running back Steven Jackson observed as much before the team’s first division game against Seattle way back on Sept. 30.

“I think our division will, at the end of the season, have four of the top defenses in the NFL,” Jackson said then. “All are very aggressive, all have a lot of athletes on that side of the ball and a lot of them create turnovers. We, as an offense, are going to face some tough defenses not only in practice, but six games at least out of the year where each and every game is probably going to come down to the fourth quarter.”

To compete with that, the Rams armed themselves with the likes of Brockers, Dunbar, cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, defensive tackle Kendall Langford and defensive end William Hayes in the offseason.

The result has been a defense that is as blue collar and opportunistic as their divisional brethren.

“I think you just look at all the teams in our division now, they all have very, very good defenses,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “And I think that’s been one of the reasons for the improvement.”

Having passed all of their divisional tests to date, the Rams will almost certainly face the toughest challenge of all this week in Seattle.

The Seahawks are on a roll and dominated the first place Niners last week to improve to 10-5 and move within a half game of San Francisco for the division lead. A San Francisco loss against Arizona paired with a Seattle win against the Rams would give them the NFC West crown, meaning there are no breaks for the Rams this week.

Making matters more difficult is the notorious crowd noise CenturyLink Field provides and the home field advantage it ultimately creates.

All of that adds up to one final exam for the Rams, not only for the season as a whole but within their division. A win won’t allow them to keep playing this season but it could certainly mean a lot in the big picture.

“Absolutely,” Bradford said. “To go undefeated in this division this year I think would say a lot about this football team. Just since I’ve been here this division has gotten a lot better, a lot more competitive around the league. So I think it would be real nice and say a lot about this team if we could go 5-0-1 against our division.”