ST. LOUIS — Goodbye, AFC East. Good riddance. Not nice knowing you.
The St. Louis Rams complete their tour around Bill Belichick’s sandbox Sunday with a trip to Ralph Wilson Stadium to face the Buffalo Bills. This goes without saying, but the journey has been less pleasant than trying to paddle from the edge of Niagara Falls.
To recap: The Rams are 5-3-1 against the NFC, including 4-0-1 in the NFC West. But they’re hitless in three swings against the AFC East, and some of their largest whiffs this season have come against the division.
Exhibit A: A 17-14 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 6. The Rams outgained the ‘Fins 462 yards to 192, had 10 more first downs (22 in all) and held possession for about seven minutes longer than Joe Philbin’s guys. But they went 1 for 3 in red-zone scoring chances, starting a slide that saw them go 0-4-1 before beating the hapless Arizona Cardinals in Week 12.
Exhibit B: A 45-7 knockout by the New England Patriots in Week 8. Knife, meet butter. Running back Stevan Ridley allowed necks around the Rams’ defense to receive a solid workout while running for 127 yards and a touchdown at Wembley Stadium. The only other thing worth recalling from the London Letdown is this: Tight end Rob Gronkowski does a mean Buckingham Palace guard imitation.
Exhibit C: A 27-13 loss to the New York Jets in Week 11. Gang Green came to the Ed with less mojo than NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, but they left with their first victory in four games. Mark Sanchez was passable for one afternoon, throwing for 178 yards with one touchdown. On top of that, Jets coach Rex Ryan outdueled Jeff Fisher. For the Rams, it was a deflating day, one that brought to mind the lost 2011 season.
Will the Bills offer a reprieve? Or will the Rams finish winless in a division that, to this point, has thrown sand in their eyes?
Answers to come.
On to Week 14…
How will the Rams handle the playoff talk?
No, that’s not a typo. The Rams have crept into the postseason picture, though they remain more a fringe fascination that true threat. One web site, PlayoffStatus.com, gives them a 6 percent chance to snatch the last wild card spot. (Seed Nos. 2 through 5 are either a 1 percent or less than 1 percent possibility. “No playoffs” comes in at 92 percent.)
So there’s something to play for Sunday, even if the window of opportunity is smaller than a hole for Steven Jackson against the San Francisco 49ers’ front four. Keep in mind: The Bills have a slight chance too. PlayoffStatus.com gives them a 2 percent possibility to slide into the AFC’s sixth wild card spot.
Still, these are different times. Aside from a near miss in 2010, when the Rams finished 7-9, the words “NFL playoffs” spoken in December around these parts have been more rare than a “Let’s…go…Blues!” chant since Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr began their cage match in September.
Change, unlike the NHL lockout, can be good.
How will the Rams fare against the Bills’ offensive line?
Plug the holes. Buffalo could be a leaky outfit if it’s not careful. St. Louis has brought the heat to quarterbacks of late, earning 13 sacks in the last four games. The Rams dropped 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick three times last Sunday in a 16-13 overtime victory. The Bills, meanwhile, have allowed 20 sacks this season.
Slowing Buffalo’s rushing attack also will be crucial. The Bills rank fourth in the NFL, averaging 147.9 yards per game. C.J. Spiller (907 yards) and Fred Jackson (423) are the hammers of Buffalo’s ground strategy. The Rams allow an average of 114.4 yards on the ground, so logic suggests the Bills will have room to run on occasion.
Keep close watch. If St. Louis can contain Buffalo’s backs, the added load on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could pay dividends. He has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in each of the past three games. That follows a three-game stretch where he had at least 225 yards on each occasion.
It’s a simple formula, really. Stop the legs + pressure the arm = good things happen.
What will happen?
Find a landing spot for the monkey. A few backs will feel lighter Sunday.
Now, this space has fared almost as poorly as the Rams against The Division That Can’t Be Shaken. Yes, I picked a Patriots victory. But I also had the Rams beating the Dolphins (Headline: “Rams will keep going north on South Beach”) and Jets (Headline: “The circus arrives when the Rams face the Jets”).
So a 1-2 record is like walking into a cash-only bar with nothing in your wallet but an expired debit card. You’re past the door, but you’re still oh-so far away.
Well, there are much worse things in life than a .500 record. Upstate New York winters. Buffalo’s record on Super Sunday. Parking near the Ed.
Two things will happen Sunday: The Rams will crack their goose egg against the AFC East, and they’ll turn attention to the more cooperative NFC.