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Sunday, January 2, 2011

St. Louis Rams go from 1-15 to One Win Away from Playoff-Bound


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By R.B. FALLSTROM, AP Sports Writer 

One year removed from a one-win season, the St. Louis Rams are one win away from the postseason.

All they need is a win Sunday night at Seattle, where they haven't prevailed since 2004, to win the NFC West. And after the misery of 2009, they're overjoyed to have the challenge.

It'll be in prime time, too. The NFL used its flexible scheduling policy to move Rams (7-8) vs. Seahawks (6-9) to an evening time slot. If the Seahawks win, they'll become the first division champion with a losing record in league history.

A win would give the Rams, the sad sacks who were 6-42 from 2007-09, their first playoff berth since '04 and their first division title since '03, when the Greatest Show on Turf was still going strong. So what if they'd be only 8-8? They'd open at home in the playoffs.

Cornerback Ron Bartell chuckled when asked how tough it would be playing in Seattle, then said, "With the opportunity we have, who cares who we play and where?"

This time last year, nobody could have envisioned this chance - even if the division title up for grabs is the NFL's weakest.

"It's great for the team. It's kind of another step in the whole thing," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "We're hoping we can take a big step and then get on the bottom of another mountain and try to climb that one."

The Rams showed spunk in their home finale, rebounding from losses to the Chiefs and Saints by rallying from a two-point halftime deficit behind a defense that shut down the 49ers. Troy Smith passed for 356 yards in the 49ers' overtime victory in San Francisco last month. In the rematch, also Mike Singletary's last game as coach, Smith got benched in the fourth quarter.

"We tried to get somebody in his face all the time," middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "No quarterback likes somebody in his face."

The Rams opened the playbook a bit, starting with a four-wideout set. Danny Amendola's option pass for rookie Danario Alexander drew an interference call that led to Steven Jackson's 1-yard run the next play. They also ran a few end-arounds with Brandon Gibson.

Alexander had his best day with six catches for 99 yards, including a 46-yarder to the 3 that led to a touchdown. Sam Bradford was 16 for 20 in the second half, hitting his rhythm with quick tempo passes.

Spagnuolo makes no apologies for finishing the game in a shell, a conservative approach that gave San Francisco three shots to force overtime. He denied being influenced by Bradford's lost fumble on a sack at the 49ers 10 in the first quarter.

Amendola's 84-yard kickoff return was a rapid response to Jeff Reed's 47-yard field goal that cut the deficit to five points with 5:46 left. Perhaps to protect Bradford, the Rams were content to burn about two minutes of clock time while calling three Jackson handoffs before settling for Josh Brown's third field goal.

Time for two more 49ers possessions. They made it to the Rams 42 the first series before Chris Long stripped Alex Smith on a sack for a turnover. On the second chance, the 49ers ran out of time at their own 34.

St. Louis nearly squandered a 17-point cushion in a three-point victory over the Chargers, used up most of a 20-point lead in a three-point win at Denver, and lost by a point in the final minute at Tampa Bay.

"There may be another game going forward where you'd do it differently," Spagnuolo said. "We chose to do it this way and it happened to work out, so this time we were right.

"Could it have bitten us in the butv? Maybe, yeah."

Now comes an opponent that had beaten the Rams 10 straight before their 20-3 victory at home in October. St. Louis is healthier and trending up, while the Seahawks have dropped seven of nine and have questions at quarterback, with Matt Hasselbeck likely to be limited all week by a hip injury.

"It's going to be awesome," Laurinaitis said. "It's what you play for."

. Click Here for Last weeks Press Conference by Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo

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