ST. LOUIS – Spots are scarce. This is the time of year when the playoff race becomes a melee of gritted teeth, flying elbows and black eyes. Six slots. Many possibilities. One brawl.
Call it Elimination Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome. The St. Louis Rams (6-6-1) and Minnesota Vikings (7-6) meet as members of the “In The Hunt” club in the NFC postseason chase. By the end of their tango, one will survive. The other likely will dab their wounds in the offseason.
It’s an intriguing matchup for many reasons. Few, including this humble writer, thought the Rams would be in this discussion in December. Coach Jeff Fisher’s first spin around the Gateway City has included some wrong turns – a 0-4-1 stretch from Weeks 6 through 11 was a dead end to forget – but three consecutive victories after dropping a stinker to the New York Jets have them back in the fast lane. Meanwhile, the Vikings have lost four of their last six, despite running back/magician/droid Adrian Peterson running like his feet are on fire. Go figure.
This should include some sparks. Two contestants enter, and one will avoid being tossed from the Ring of Contention. Will it be the Rams, the spirited upstart, who last lived the playoffs in 2004? Or will it be the Vikings, the wounded favorite, who look to return for the first time since 2009?
Only the strongest will survive.
On to Week 15…
How will the Rams fare against Peterson?
How do you cage a tornado? Look, All Day will get his yards. Since late October, he has collected them like a hoarder does cats. Check out these rushing totals from the past two months: 153 yards, 123, 182, 171, 108, 210 and 154. He’s Earl Campbell with modern flair – a fright for defenses after returning from a horrific ACL tear in his left knee sustained last December. He’s Michael Jordan in cleats, a showstopper, the NFL’s hottest thing.
No pressure, Rams. OK, perhaps a little sweat is necessary. It’s no secret Peterson can treat defenses like a ratty sock and turn them inside out while chasing Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record.
Still, St. Louis is respectable against the run. The Rams are No. 13 in the category, allowing an average of 110.3 yards per game. They’ve crossed some elite runners, such as the Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch and the Washington Redskins’ Alfred Morris and the New England Patriots’ Stevan Ridley.
But we know better. Those are thunderstorms. Peterson is an F5.
The Rams better brace themselves – not scramble for cover.
How will the Rams handle the stakes?
The watch continues. This is a season of firsts for so many reasons. Early, we were introduced to the Greg The Leg phenomenon. Then there was the Fisher ‘Stache. Then there was the first gasp of air above .500 since 2006. Then there was the first tie since 2008.
How will these young Rams handle the late-season floodlights for the first time? They’ve tiptoed their balance beam with skill so far, turning should-have-been losses against the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills into Ws. That’s what good teams do – swipe a few when they have no business doing so and live to tell about it tomorrow.
Here’s saying Sunday’s stage will be manageable. They’re a decent 4-3 at the Ed. Meanwhile, the Vikings are an abysmal 1-5 away from their digs.
This is another chance for a growing team to gain more scars. Big opportunity. Bright lights. Game on.
What will happen?
The thing about survival is that small things matter most. Do you have enough water for two days or two months? Enough food for one night or one week? A strong enough will to fight through fatigue, insomnia and other arrows that nature slings your way?
We’ll learn about the Rams in their version of Hunger Games. Face it: This is candy. Only the most hopeful, No. 8-jersey-wearing diehard thought they’d be here. Only the most faithful thought the Rams would stare down the NFL’s top rushing force for a chance to keep slim playoff hopes alive. It beats 2-14. It beats 15-65. It sure as heck beats irrelevance by November.
So, let’s talk about those small things. The Vikings are more schizophrenic than Harvey Dent. Try 6-1 at home paired with that rancid road mark. (What disease did the Detroit Lions have when Minnesota took one at Ford Field in Week 4?)
When making this choice, it’s as simple as geography.