Bruising Rams give preview of coming NFC West battles

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comDecember 31, 2012 

For the too-hot-not-to-cool-down Seahawks, a funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs Sunday afternoon.

They trailed.

From midway through the second quarter until late in the third, the Seahawks found themselves behind on points. The plodding, bruising, ugly as mud matchup with St. Louis wasn’t unexpected, but after a recent run of merciless domination, the mood at CenturyLink Field on the eve of New Year’s Eve was more tense than festive.

The Seahawks briefly took the lead when Russell Wilson lobbed a touchdown pass to Michael Robinson off a play-action fake, and they took the lead for good on Wilson’s touchdown scamper with 99 seconds remaining, and the long, laborious regular-season finale ended when Sam Bradford’s pass toward the end zone was picked off by the inevitable Richard Sherman.

After the 20-13 victory, Seattle coach Pete Carroll noted how it was “nice to finish like that in a tough situation.

“We’ve had some games on the other end of that ledger for a while,” Carroll added, “so it doesn’t hurt us to have to struggle and fight like that.”

While his team’s attention is turning toward its wild-card playoff game next Sunday at Washington, Carroll can be thankful he’s preparing for the Redskins instead of the Rams.

Eliminated from the playoffs, St. Louis embraced the challenge of putting together a winning season as if it were the ultimate playoff game.

“We wanted to win this game as much as any game,” Rams defensive end Chris Long said in the visitors’ locker room. “The guys in here treated it like it was the Super Bowl.”

With a 7-8-1 record, the Rams, who haven’t won more games than they’ve lost since 2003, must wait another season before they finish on the sunny side of .500. But get used to these guys, and their affinity for a kind of football that can be frustrating to play and maddening to watch.

The St. Louis defense sacked Wilson six times for 41 yards. After a three-game stretch in which the Seahawks outscored their opponents, 150-30, they were held to 17 first downs. They punted five times.

The play of the game, Carroll offered, was not Golden Tate’s 44-yard reception of a Wilson pass with 3:19 remaining in the fourth quarter. It was Tate’s recovery of a Marshawn Lynch fumble, at the Seattle 22, earlier on that scoring drive.

When the victorious coach is most pleased by a recovered fumble, it gives you an idea of the afternoon’s artistic quality.

“They’re for real,” Robinson said of the Rams. “Chris Long is a very good player, high energy with a high motor. A couple times we left him unblocked, and you can’t do that.

“But it’s not just Long. Their front seven on defense is awesome, and their special teams are as good as anybody in the league. If they’re anywhere near the 50-yard line, they’re a threat to hang three on the scoreboard.”

Robinson was referring to big-boom kicker Greg Zuerlein, who converted two field goal attempts and missed wide on a third try, from 51 yards. For Zuerlein, that’s a chip shot.

Zuerlein was among the 15 rookies on the Rams’ roster Sunday. The organization’s decision to trade the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft to the Redskins – Washington used it to draft Robert Griffin III – deprived the Rams of a superstar but enabled new head coach Jeff Fisher to retool his team on both sides of the ball.

And the retooling will continue: The Rams are due the Redskins’ first-round draft choice in both 2013 and 2014.

“We didn’t play as well as we can,” said Carroll, “but it would be wrong not to recognize that they are a very good football team. They played hard and tough and they were playing to win the game.

“They’ve won a lot of games lately, and you can tell why. It speaks to the division: It’s so darn tough.”

The toughness of the NFC West, officially clinched Sunday by the 49ers in San Francisco, is a concern better left for next season. So are the Rams, who competed against the Seahawks as if the conference championship were at stake.

Sooner or later, that scenario could determine a Super Bowl berth. My hunch is on the sooner.

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