Rams find themselves in position to make late playoff push

ST. LOUIS — There are reminders of the Rams’ most successful seasons nearly everywhere you look at Rams Park in Earth City, Mo.

In one corner of the team’s locker room, on the wall next to rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree’s stall, the years of each of the franchise’s playoff appearances are listed.

The last one on the list — 2004 — has plenty of room next to it. But eight seasons have come and gone and St. Louis has yet to add to it.

The Rams have won two straight games and take a 5-6 record into their showdown in San Francisco on Sunday. They are fourth in the NFC West and 11th out of 16 teams in the NFC playoff standings but four of their final five games are against teams ahead of them — the 49ers (7-4), Cardinals (7-4), Saints (9-2) and Seahawks (10-1). The other game is against the Buccaneers (3-8), who have won three straight.

The Rams are well aware they’ll be in the hunt if they keep up their impressive play of recent weeks, close calls against the Seahawks and Titans followed by big wins against the Colts and Bears.

“I think it would be naïve to say that we didn’t realize that the playoff picture is still there for us,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “All of our dreams are still there. We’ve said that every week, even when we lost a couple there that we didn’t feel we should lose. After the Tennessee game, we said as bad as this sucks, everything is out in front of us still. We know it’s there. We’re not harping on it because we know we just have to stack them up one at a time in hopes that we get there.”

Sunday’s game in San Francisco will be telling.

The 49ers dominated the Rams 35-11 at the Edward Jones Dome back in Week 4, which dropped St. Louis to 1-3 on the season with their third consecutive loss.

We’ve seen a different Rams team these last few weeks. That’s clear.

Laurinaitis said Wednesday that there’s been a lot of growth since that Week 4 loss, that you can see fundamentally what this team is all about.

“Our offense has been great at running the football,” he said. “We really got back to that with Zac (Stacy) and Benny (Cunningham). They’ve done a tremendous job filling in. The o-line has done a tremendous job. There’s been a lot of growth defensively. … I think earlier we were kind of passive-aggressive and now our defense is more just attacking and aggressive and not worried about being perfect all the time.”

The Rams are 4-3 since that first matchup with San Francisco.

“It was just a wake-up call,” Laurinaitis said. “If you watch the tape from the squad we had last year in the two games and you’re like, yeah, we fought toe to toe and had some battles with them. Then you look at the tape of the first game with them this year and then the last few weeks and you don’t even know who that team is really.”

The middle linebacker, now in his fifth season, knows the Rams will have to go out and prove they aren’t the same team that got pounded on that Thursday night in late September.

“I think we’re a different team, but the only way to go get that respect is to go out and earn it,” he said. “It’s going to be tough on the road against a good football team.”

The Rams will have two opportunities to earn that respect when they travel to San Francisco and Arizona the next two weeks. Win two games and suddenly they are 7-6 with a four-game winning streak and closing in on one of the final playoff berths with three games left.

“We know it’s going to be a tough stretch,” Rams defensive end Robert Quinn said. “I think guys definitely believe that we can make the run, especially with the way we’ve been playing.”

Quinn isn’t interested in looking too far ahead, though.

“I think guys have a sense of taking it one week at a time and focus on that opponent, which is San Fran,” he said. “They are no slap-over team. They’re a great team. We know we’ve got our work cut out but I definitely think guys are still believing. The last two performances we put on, guys feel like that’s more of us, what people expected.”

Now it’s time to go out and prove it.

You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at natelatsch@gmail.com.