Remember the days of the NFC Worst? In recent years, the St Louis Rams’ division has represented the basement of the Conference – if not the League – and has featured some shockingly awful teams with rightfully dreadful records (and we are not just talking about the Rams!). Examples of this legacy of failure are the 2005 season, when three of the division’s four teams won just fifteen games between them, and perhaps reached a climax in 2010, when the Seattle Seahawks became the first team in NFL history to win a division with a losing record. On three occasions since the divisions re-aligned in 2002, the NFC West has been won by a team with just 9 wins and all four teams have had top five picks in the last ten drafts.
Despite this, however, the division has been represented in the Super Bowl four times since 2006, and the Seahawks’ triumph last February represents how far the NFC West has come since those days. The Arizona Cardinals’ 10-6 record only led to third place within the division, despite the fact that this would have been enough to win the NFC North by two clear games. For their part, the Rams’ 7-9 record, which would have been enough to win back in 2010, was the highest of any fourth-placed team in any division in the NFL, and would have allowed them to come joint second in the AFC South. With young, dynamic quarterbacks (Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick…dare I add Sam Bradford??), fearsome defensive players (Robert Quinn, Richard Sherman, Patrick Willis, Patrick Peterson) and smart coaches, the NFC West has gone from worst to best and, if the Rams are going to deliver on their lofty ambitions and their fans’ impatient expectations, they are going to have to hold their own in these toughest of environments.
And the Rams seem to be shaping up to address the challenge. The investments in the offensive and defensive trenches, and the focus on a running game, is a reflection of the team’s attempts to meet the demands imposed by their divisional opponents. Pressure on the opposing quarterback is key, particularly in containing slippery customers like Wilson and Kaepernick, while, with juggernauts like Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore in the backfields, closing running lanes with hefty bodies is a must. The opposite, however, is also true, as the Rams’ divisional opponents are doing exactly the same. Therefore, protecting Bradford is a priority, while a strong running game from Zac Stacy (and Tre Mason?) will prevent the need to throw to Sherman and Peterson. This is tough, hard-nosed football, and the Rams have accumulated the ingredients to fight this fight.
And fight it they will have to. In this competitive NFC West, the Rams should aim to win at least four divisional games if they have any chance of winning the division. This would involve a minimum of one away win in daunting environments. Both the Seahawks and the 49ers met this minimum last season and, unsurprisingly, they both qualified for the playoffs; the Rams’ dismal 1-5 divisional record was a huge factor in their eventual fate. These internal games represent some of the toughest on the Rams’ overall schedule, and, to realize any postseason hopes, they are going to have to pick up these key wins, beating at least one of their division rivals twice.
The good news is, of course, that the Rams have done this before. In 2012, the team won four of their divisional games and lost only one, with a hard-fought tie against San Francisco rounding off the record. And this was with a weaker incarnation than the 2014 version is likely to be. With the rival teams not having improved at the same rate (in my view, anyway), the Rams have a strong possibility of mounting a serious challenge for the NFC West crown and, should they fall short, possibly pick up a wild-card spot. It will be tough, and it will be challenging but, for Rams fans, that will be nothing new. At least this time, however, there is a sense of hope.
So let’s get ready to rumble.