Monday, December 27, 2004

Playoff hopes hang in the balance

By Nick Wagoner Staff Writer, from the official site of the St. Louis Rams
Forget all of the doom and gloom surrounding the Rams. Nobody knows better than they do what must be done over the course of the next two weeks to sneak into the playoffs.

This year seems to be unlike any other. Most playoff pictures are usual crystal clear by this point in the season. But with two weeks of the regular season left to play, the NFC picture is probably more muddled than ever. Combine that with the number of teams still alive in the AFC picture and the final two weeks take on more meaning than ever.

St. Louis is stuck squarely in the middle of that group with a 6-8 record, maintaining hopes of a playoff berth and even a division title. If the Rams can win both of their games and Seattle loses one of its two, St. Louis wins the NFC West Division. The Rams are joined by almost the entire league in harboring playoff hopes.

In fact, only six teams (Oakland, Tennessee, San Francisco, Miami, Cleveland and Cincinnati) are eliminated from playoff contention. The teams remaining the AFC appear to be better, as that conference has outperformed the NFC for most of the year.

So, what exactly is it that makes it so difficult to discern which teams will make the playoffs and which are destined for the golf course in January?

Defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson has a relatively simple answer.

“The record sounds a little funny to still be in it,” Jackson said. “But, that’s the NFL. Everybody’s good or everybody’s mediocre; however you want to look at it. Since, I’m a glass half-full guy, everybody’s good. None of that really matters. All that really matters is we have to win on Monday to have a chance to get in the playoffs.”

Ah, yes, the elusive seventh win. The Rams have struggled mightily the past two weeks, losing on the road to Carolina and Arizona. Those losses came after a solid, if not spectacular performance against San Francisco that garnered win No. 6.

In the Rams’ defense, they were without quarterback Marc Bulger in those two losses. Now, Bulger returns for Monday night’s game against Philadelphia at the Edward Jones Dome.

With so much at stake, the Rams know they can’t afford to lay an egg in front of a national television audience. The Eagles don’t have much left to play for, as they have already clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

However, Philadelphia lost star receiver Terrell Owens to an ankle injury last week and the Eagles could be looking to prove they can win games without their best playmaker.

Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said he expects his starters to play, but hinted that they might not be in the whole game.

“The starters are going to start and play,” Reid said. “But on the other hand, it’s an opportunity for some of the young guys to get in and play, also. So, we’ll just see how it works out.”

Quarterback Donovan McNabb, ever the competitor, said he wants to play as much as possible, but it isn’t likely he will play all four quarters. With Owens out, the Eagles can’t afford to lose McNabb or running back Brian Westbrook, the team’s two best remaining playmakers.

Still, though, Philadelphia has proven in seasons past that its backups and young players are no slouches. Take young cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown as examples. They replaced fan favorites Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent in the secondary after playing the role of understudies the past couple of seasons.

Now, Sheppard is going to the Pro Bowl and Brown is one of the team’s most productive defensive players. If there is more talent like that behind the starters, it won’t matter who starts and who plays on Monday night.

That means the Rams can’t expect any kind of gimme this week. Jackson said the team knows to expect Philadelphia’s best, regardless of who is on the field.

“I have no idea, and to be honest, I really don’t care,” Jackson said. “They are a great team, and whoever they put out there I’m sure will be more than serviceable. So I really don’t care who they decide to play, and how long they play them, because it really doesn’t matter. We’re not going to adjust how we play based on what number jersey is out there.”

With so much left to play for, it is unlikely the Rams won’t come out ready to play. Effort and enthusiasm, however, have not been the problems. The problem has been execution. With Bulger back in the fold, the offense should pick up. Of course, it would almost have to after the past two weeks.

Combine that with an improving, but not-quite-there-yet defense and playoff and divisional dreams and you have all of the necessary ingredients to win an important game.

Larry Turner, who started at left guard last week but will be replaced by Tom Nütten this week, said he believes in his team.

“We aren’t dead yet,” Turner said. “We have a great offense, and our defense is coming along. There’s no reason to believe that we couldn’t win these two games. It’s the NFL, it’s any given Sunday. That’s why you play the game.

There’s no reason why we can’t go out here and win these next two games, I believe we can, and I believe we will.”

That kind of enthusiasm has been present all season, now, more than ever, it needs to translate to performance on the field. Nobody on this team knows that better than Bulger.

“It’s on us to go out and do it,” Bulger said. “We have been making promises all year we haven’t kept, so we have to find it within ourselves to finish up strong.”

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Rams get Dropped by Panthers

The Carolina Panthers were a joke two months ago, in danger of becoming the answer to a trivia question as the biggest bust following a Super Bowl season.

Don't look now, but the Panthers are surging, and moved into the thick of the playoff race Sunday with a 20-7 victory over the St. Louis Rams.

Carolina (6-7) has won five straight and is now tied with the Rams (6-7) for the final NFC wild-card berth, but owns the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage.

"They had us for the buzzards, we were road kill," linebacker Mark Fields said. "All of sudden, we are coming back. With the character and the leadership of this team, there is no question about it -- this team has some resolve."

Stuck in a six-game losing streak two months ago and the laughingstock of the league with a 1-7 record, the playoffs were unthinkable. Mounting injuries had 14 players out for the season and no help on the way.

Once the Panthers realized that, they began to turn it around and are suddenly playing almost as well as they did during last year's Super Bowl run.

Feeding off a defense that set a franchise record with six interceptions, the Panthers got touchdowns from Muhsin Muhammad and Nick Goings and two field goals from John Kasay in a rematch of January's thrilling NFC divisional playoff.

But this one wasn't nearly as dramatic as Carolina's 29-23 win in double overtime, mainly because the teams are totally different than they were in January.

For starters, 10 of Carolina's 22 regulars from that game are either no longer with the Panthers or out with injuries. St. Louis (6-7) was without star running back Marshall Faulk, and started 39-year-old Chris Chandler at quarterback because Marc Bulger is hurt.

But the stakes were just as high, at least for Carolina.

"It's a playoff game for us every time we go on the field," cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. said. "This is it for us. The hole we put ourselves in, the only way out of it is to win every game and keep the season going."

Manning took the first step, intercepting Chandler on the Rams' first series to set up Carolina's first touchdown. It was Manning who set up Carolina's playoff victory, as well, when he ended a Rams drive by wrestling the ball away from Torry Holt to give the Panthers possession for their winning drive.

Dan Morgan, back from a three-game absence with a concussion, had two interceptions to join Manning for the team lead, and Will Witherspoon and rookie Chris Gamble each added a pick.

Morgan had no idea which of the six interceptions meant the most.

"There were so many, I forgot all of them," he said.

The Panthers forced seven turnovers in all -- Shaun McDonald muffed a punt that Carolina recovered -- and used constant pressure on Chandler to prevent him from finding a comfort zone.

"I think (Chandler) got rattled early," St. Louis coach Mike Martz said. "I think any time you throw some picks in the game, as quarterback, it really is unsettling. At that point, he had a hard time recovering."

Making his first start in over a year, Chandler wasn't crisp. But the 17-year veteran still made a handful of athletic plays, including one that was negated for offensive holding but would have ranked among his niftier touchdown passes.

He escaped from the collapsing pocket, eluded several defenders and zipped a pass to Isaac Bruce, who zigzagged into the end zone for what would have been a 52-yard touchdown.

The one that did count was his 75-yard TD pass to Holt at the end of the first quarter, when Chandler converted on third-and-9. Chandler finished 16-for-29 for 243 yards, one touchdown, six interceptions and was sacked three times.

"No, nothing this bad," Chandler responded when asked if he had ever played worse. "I have no answers, and no excuses. It's just not good."

Meanwhile, Muhammad, who caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme in the first quarter, scored for a career-best 11th time this season.

And Goings, Carolina's sixth-string running back before injuries forced him into a starting role, ran for 108 yards and a 1-yard TD plunge. He now has run for 100 yards or more in all four of his starts -- tying the mark Stephen Davis set last season.