Rams receive first home loss, new questions

ST. LOUIS – At a time when standing .500 can either mean progress or a letdown, Sam Bradford and Aaron Rodgers met on the field with a proven winner trending upward. A sizable Green Bay Packers contingent roared in the clearing Edward Jones Dome, turning the St. Louis Rams’ sanctuary into Lambeau Field with a roof.

The Rams’ stellar start, which saw them own their first winning record since November 2006, was made within these walls. Before the Packers’ 30-20 victory Sunday, St. Louis was one of seven NFL teams undefeated at home. The Rams were listless at times in defeats at Detroit, Chicago and Miami, but they played with more flex on familiar turf.  

So the Rams, smitten with a 3-3 record, welcomed the Packers, a group with an identical mark but without the same satisfaction. The NFC powerhouse had wobbled through September without stringing together consecutive victories. Then they dropped an emotional game to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5 before routing the Houston Texans last Sunday. St. Louis and Green Bay hovered at .500, but one team’s emotional tank stood half-full and the other half-empty.

When it was over Sunday, Rodgers and Bradford hugged near the 25-yard line with the NFL’s balance restored for at least a week. Camera bulbs flashed, and a “Go Pack go!” chant lifted.

Rodgers, who completed 30 of 37 passes for 342 yards with three touchdowns, looked masterful. Bradford, who completed 21 of 34 passes for 255 yards with one touchdown and an interception, looked to be searching.  

Once again, the Packers were a winning team. Once again, the Rams weren’t – and new questions awaited them.  

“You’ve got to score more points,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said, whose team was held to less than 21 points for the fifth time this season. “We’re not scoring points – not enough points to beat a team like this on offense.”

What an offense it is. Green Bay sliced Houston for a season-high 42 points in Week 6, and the Packers brought those same knives to dice the Rams’ perfect home record. They finished with 402 yards and 22 first downs. They were led by Jordy Nelson’s eight catches for a season-high 122 yards. They recovered from a 10-point hiccup in the first half by producing 20 in the second.

Meanwhile, it’s fair to wonder why the Rams’ offense continues to treat the end zone like a patch of poison ivy. With 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter, a meaningless 3-yard pass from Bradford to Austin Pettis helped St. Louis avoid the fifth game in which it failed to score at least two touchdowns.

Brian Schottenheimer’s offense has skidded since a victory over the Washington Redskins in Week 2. Fisher was crafty in finding ways to win in the opening month, especially in a Week 4 victory over the Seattle Seahawks when punter Johnny Hekker threw a touchdown on a fake field goal.

But now the slide is five games old. It could stunt a recovery.

“It’s hard to say right now,” Bradford said, when asked if there were positives from the afternoon. “I think we’ll have to look at the film to really draw the positives, but (it’s) just another frustrating loss.”

The usual issues are to blame: A revolving-door offensive line, a shallow wide-receiving corps that misses Danny Amendola and a quarterback that lives odd stretches of on-again, off-again confidence. These concerns likely won’t be corrected soon since each has become part of this team’s DNA.

So Sunday presented a crossroads of sorts. Which direction will the Rams take, starting with an intriguing test against the New England Patriots in London next week: Forward or more strides back?

“When you face a team like this potent offense, we’ve got to do our job as an offensive unit – and that’s to keep up and help our defense out,” said Rams running back Steven Jackson, who finished with 57 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. “They’re red-hot right now. They have one of the best quarterbacks in football. We knew it was going to be a challenge. We need to continue to get better at that.”

They must, and it’s part of the growing pains of a young team trying to become a consistent winner. The Rams aced their learning curve before a self-inflicted loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 6. They surpassed even the wildest expectations under Fisher through the first month, and rookies like kicker Greg Zuerlein and cornerback Janoris Jenkins became faces of change.

But Green Bay’s rout, which made most fans stream for the exits with three minutes left and St. Louis down 17 points, offered a moment of pause. The loss was the Rams’ worst since a 17-point defeat to the Chicago Bears in Week 3. On Sunday, like that afternoon, a playoff-tested NFC North foe handled a young team.

“We’ve played better offensively the last couple of games – we’ve played two really good teams,” Rodgers said. “St. Louis is a good team. They’re on the upswing, for sure. They’ve got a real good defense, a real good young quarterback and some young receivers who are improving, so it’s a good win for us.”

Yes, the victory was a quality one for Green Bay. Meanwhile, St. Louis gained a lesson — one that was learned long before fans wearing green and gold washed their team with cheers as Rodgers walked toward a tunnel.

The Rams’ home became the Packers’ haven.

Both teams entered as equals. One left rising, the other on a fall.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.