Looking ahead: The path to the playoffs begins against the Chiefs

Spagnuolo looks forward... one game at a time
Coach Spags has tunnel vision… one game at a time, kids.

We are midway through December, the smell of fresh cut trees is in the air, and somehow we’re still talking about the Rams’ very real possibility of winning the division. Can I get a hallelujah? 

With three games left on the schedule, there is only one sure way of taking home an NFC West title, and that’s to win out. It would require our first 3-game winning streak since the final three games of the 2006 season, a furious rush that closed our last non-losing season at 8-8. Granted, though, those three games came against three flawed teams (the Raiders, Redskins and Vikings) whose combined records were 13-25.

Then again, it’s been years since you could honestly say that there were teams that the Rams were supposed to beat.

One thing you can say about the remaining slate of games — two division rivals and one in-state one, each chasing a division crown: none of these teams will roll over. Another thing you can say: each of these games is eminently winnable, if the Rams bring their “A” game. Let’s begin our preview of the rest of the season with this week’s matchup against the Chiefs.

Week 15: Home vs Kansas City Chiefs

The Rams appear positioned to catch a big break in this game, if Matt Cassel is ruled out for the second consecutive week (as is expected), following emergency appendectomy surgery last week. While Cassel is not a great quarterback, the dropoff between him and Brodie Croyle is as steep as the one between Peyton Manning and Jim Sorgi (or whoever his backup is these days). Croyle is just that bad.

If Matt Cassel is out, the Chiefs’ backup is Brodie, whose pocket presence looks something like this. http://bit.ly/8AuTvj

Not only did Croyle sabotage last week’s passing game against the Chargers (Dwayne Bowe: 1 catch, 3 yards), the San Diego defense was able to completely disregard him in their gameplan, and focus on shutting down the two-headed monster of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. Which they did, holding Charles to his lowest output of the season: 40 yards on 10 carries.

The Chiefs’ defense has been improving, thanks largely to the sudden growth of linebacker Derrick Johnson (who I had targeted as a possible low-cost trade acquisition, before he blew up the end of last season), the arrival of Eric Berry via draft, and the emergence of Tamba Hali as an interior force. However, leave any unit on the field for forty minutes, and they will leak yardage and points.

What if Cassel plays?

Cassel says 99% chance he plays #chiefs

If Cassel is able to go, then the defense gameplan has to shift from stuffing the run to presuring the QB — and getting him down. In their last 8 games, here are their offensive point totals when Cassel is sacked fewer than twice: 31, 42, 31, 42. Contrarily, here are their point totals when Cassel is downed twice or more: 13, 20, 29, 10.

The key factor?

Spagnuolo’s third down defensive calls will need a big rebound from last week’s clinical vivisection at the hands of the Saints. This is a Chiefs team that can be explosive at times, but can be offensively inconsistent. Not allowing them to extend drives will be a critical factor, and will give Bradford more time to operate.

This time, the “Governor’s Cup” actually stands for something — the winner gets a clear path to the playoffs, for at least one more week.