Despite loss, Rams still hold cards in NFC West

Published Dec. 21, 2010 3:40 a.m. ET

Belonging to the downtrodden NFC West has its benefits. The St. Louis Rams laid an egg at home on Sunday, yet remain tied for first place and hold the tiebreaker over the Seattle Seahawks.

Another chance to get it done - a do over; a mulligan. Beat San Francisco this week at home and Seattle on the road in the finale, and the Rams will be 8-8 division champions who can open the playoffs at home.

There's even a slim chance the Rams could make it to the postseason at 7-9, if they lose to the 49ers (5-9) and win at Seattle (6-8) and the 49ers lose at Arizona.

''I'm not frustrated at all,'' cornerback Ron Bartell said. ''We can play better, we all know that. The playoffs really start for us right now.''

Coach Steve Spagnuolo doesn't want to hear about any of the 16 possible scenarios, adding Monday that ''if they come, I'll throw them in the waste basket.'' He knows it's all about how the Rams (6-8) perform.

If they make it to the postseason for the first time since 2004, Spagnuolo won't waste any time worrying if the team really deserves it.

''I don't look at being fortunate in a division,'' Spagnuolo said. ''I just know that until they tell us we cannot make it to the playoffs, that's what we're still shooting for.''


Even if it's an unsightly 7-9. Remember that this is the team that was 1-15 last season, ranked at or near the bottom in most major categories, and a dismal 6-42 from 2007-09.

Just being in the picture is a major step forward.

''If we happen to get in there, it won't matter what the record is,'' the coach said. ''It doesn't matter how you get in, it doesn't matter whether you're in there as a wild card or a divisional winner, if you're in you've got a chance to win it all.''

St. Louis has lost its last two, hardly peaking for a playoff run, to good teams in the Saints and Chiefs. An early rash of penalties kept the Rams from grabbing a big lead against Kansas City on Sunday and they got two field goals out of three promising drives to start the game.

Some players were unhappy that Spagnuolo mentioned playoffs for the first time all season in his postgame news conference. Running back Steven Jackson said the team should have already felt that way.

''I probably would retract that,'' Spagnuolo said. ''A better way is to say this is a must-win situation.''

The Rams made it to the Chiefs 9 after the kickoff before consecutive false start penalties by tight end Billy Bajema and offensive tackle Jason Smith left them settling for three points. Danny Amendola's 42-yard punt return to the Chiefs 36 jump-started their second possession, but after gaining 2 yards in three plays, Josh Brown kicked a 52-yard field goal.

Kevin Dockery's interception put the Rams at the Chiefs 48 on their third drive, but that one ended in a punt, the turnover wasted when Smith was whistled for illegal use of hands. Smith, the second pick of last year's draft, had three penalties in the first half, although a holding call was declined because the Rams had to punt.

The offense completely stalled in the second and third quarters, totaling one first down, before going to a no-huddle offense that produced Jackson's 5-yard scoring run to cut the gap to a touchdown with 4:04 to go.

Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford said crowd noise from the thousands of Chiefs fans who made the trek across Interstate 70 was a factor in the false starts.

''We had an opportunity to go up by a substantial lead, and we didn't do so,'' Jackson said. ''We allowed a team that does have an explosive offense with a great running gam, to stick around. It bit us.''

Wide receivers didn't get open fast enough, and Bradford was frequently on the run from a pass rush that rarely blitzed. The Rams' defense packed the line to get the ball back late in the game, but overpursued on Jamaal Charles' game-deciding 80-yard run to the St. Louis 2.

All in the past now, the Rams say. Acknowledge the missed opportunities and study up on the 49ers, who beat the Rams 23-20 in overtime five weeks ago in San Francisco.

''We're in the moving forward stage now,'' Spagnuolo said. ''This a resilient team in my particular opinion. These guys find a way when they're challenged to do some good things.''