ST. LOUIS – Excuse Rams linebacker Jo Lonn Dunbar for not knowing how to react.
As Rams coach Jeff Fisher delivered the harsh truth to his team following a 36-22 loss to the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, it was a feeling he hadn’t experienced since his rookie year in 2008.
Dunbar, a member of a New Orleans Saints team that won the Super Bowl in 2009 and made the playoffs the past three seasons, would not be making a return trip to the postseason this year.
Everybody knew it as they sat in a silent locker room Sunday afternoon. But it wasn’t until Fisher came out and said it that it became reality.
“He basically said our playoff hopes are pretty much out the window, which we all knew,” Dunbar said. “It’s completely disappointing. That’s what you play for, that opportunity to go to the playoffs and the opportunity to win a championship. I play because I love it but outside of those things, I don’t know what else you play for.”
Despite the fact that winning their final three games likely would have put them in the postseason, the first year Rams coach never once talked about the playoffs or used the word. That was, until after Sunday’s game.
With a packed crowd and the Edward Jones Dome loud and energized for one of the more anticipated home games in recent memory, the Rams gave up 23 unanswered points in the second quarter to fall behind 30-7 at halftime.
It was just the fourth time since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995 – and the first time at home – that they allowed 30 points in the first half. They tried to make a comeback in the fourth quarter but the deficit and mistakes were too much to overcome.
So there was Fisher, left to confirm what the players tried to come to grips with as the clock ticked down and the fans headed for the exits. Despite having two games left, their season was over.
“It was pretty disheartening,” quarterback Sam Bradford said of Fisher’s postgame message. “Obviously we knew that we had a shot and if we wanted to do that, we were probably going to have to win the remainder of our games. With this being our last home game it was probably one of our best opportunities for a victory. To not be able to win this game at home is extremely frustrating.”
The obvious storyline entering Sunday’s game was Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and whether or not the Rams could slow him down. They did a great job in the first quarter, limiting the possible league MVP to just eight yards on eight carries. Five of his eight went for negative yards.
But things quickly changed in the second quarter. One play after the Rams had tied the game at 7, Peterson broke free for an 82-yard touchdown run. His eight carries for eight years became nine carries for 90 yards. The Rams were never tied or led again.
A Bradford fumble resulted in a Minnesota field goal to make it 17-7 before an interception return for a touchdown by Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen made it 24-7. Two Blair Walsh field goals later – including one as time expired– gave the Vikings a commanding 30-7 intermission lead.
Fifteen fourth quarter points made the final deficit not look nearly as bad. But the feeling that had been building since the shocking second quarter remained. A season filled with promise and improvement wouldn’t end with a trip to the playoffs.
“We’ve had plenty of opportunities along the way to put is in a better position and today was one of them,” said defensive end Chris Long. “Hopefully us growing as a team will be to realize these opportunities maybe a little bit better.
“Just disappointing. We didn’t show up to play. Details wise, we made a lot of mistakes. Guys played hard. You can’t fault our team for ever not playing hard but details got us on a couple things and defensively we let them hit a couple long runs on us.”
The game wasn’t totally meaningless for the Rams as running back Steven Jackson reached the 10,000 yards rushing mark with a nine-yard carry late in the third quarter. He became just the 27th player in NFL history to achieve the feat.
A possible free agent at the end of the season, Jackson took time to acknowledge the fans that stayed to honor him as he left the field. The possible Hall of Famer has made just one playoff appearance with the Rams during his rookie season in 2004.
And for the eighth straight season he won’t be going back.
“We had to win and today we did not get it done,” Jackson said. “Now I have to show these guys how to finish strong. These two games, we want to go out and win. They will be tough because they are on the road but you want to build something to go into the offseason to build off of.”
Asked about his future in St. Louis, Jackson said, “I have two games for sure. We have a decision to make in the offseason, but I will seek the counsel of some people that I have great respect for. I don’t think about that. I still have two games to do my job and to do it at the way I play, I need to be completely focused on that.”
The Rams dropped to 6-7-1 on the season, still a great improvement from their 2-14 debacle of a season ago. And though the Rams won’t be making the playoffs, they are obviously on the right track. The postseason will come back to St. Louis, possibly as early as next year.
It just won’t be this year. Their two remaining games – at Tampa Bay and at Seattle – are all but meaningless.
“We’re going to play and play hard and finish up strong,” Fisher said. “We’re going to come back and practice and get ready to win the next ball game. That’s our approach. We’ve got a good thing going in that locker room and we’re going to continue with it.”
A locker room that wasn’t ready to hear what their coach had to say Sunday.