Rams win their first “playoff” game

Week 16: 49ers (5-9) at Rams (6-8)

Dec 26, 2010. 12:00

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James Hall clamps down on Troy Smith. AP Photo/Seth Perlman

The Rams moved one step closer to their first NFC West crown since 2003 with a white-knuckled win over the discombobulated and deeply flawed San Francisco 49ers. No doubt the national media will mercilessly flog the Niners while contradictorily holding them up as the poster child for the flawed NFC West, but they would be missing the big story of this game. Today, the Rams played what they called a “playoff game,” and in the second half, actually raised their game to playoff-caliber football.

It’s playoff time now,” wide receiver Danny Amendola said. “You can’t lose. Got to play to win. Got to attack ’em offensively. Play good defense. Make plays on special teams. And get the job done.”

— Jim Thomas: “Rams will try to boost intensity.”

While the execution wasn’t always pretty, the Rams followed Amendola’s blueprint to the most important home win in a long time. 

It wasn’t quite a do-or-die game for Steve Spagnuolo’s team, but it was for Mike Singletary’s squad, and we wondered how each team would respond. Spagnuolo focused on “intensity,” and quietly built a gameplan on offense to put the game in Sam Bradford’s hands. Singletary waffled on his quarterback, choosing his boom-or-bust big-play threat, setting the tone for this game. It was going to be all or nothing for the Niners.

In the end, it was nothing, and as the Rams head to a true win-or-go-home game in Seattle, Mike Singletary will be hitting the ranks of the unemployed.

big win today thank you to all the fans who came out and supported us today and throughout the year. see u guys in 2 weeks, lets go get a W!

The Rams delighted their near-sellout crowd by mixing some daring risks into their normally kid-safe playbook right from the opening drive. After six plays (four passes, two runs) Shurmur dialed up a textbook end-around to Danny Amendola that morphed into something unexpected: Amendola’s first ever NFL pass attempt. It was a rainbow to a double-covered Danario Alexander deep downfield that should have been intercepted, but veteran CB Nate Clements plowed through the Rams receiver for an egregious pass interference call and a first-and-goal Rams. A big gamble to go for the throat early led to a Niners’ mistake, and a huge momentum-setting play. And a snowplow run by Steven Jackson and the Rams had a 7-0 lead in front of the giddy home faithful.

A comical series of events from the 49ers — highlighted by two botched snaps, one leading to a safety — and another huge pass completion to Brandon Gibson set the Rams up deep in the red zone. In the closing seconds of the first quarter, it looked as though the Rams could run away with this game. Of course, as still-healing Rams fans know, it’s never that easy.

Fumble. Three and out. Three and out. Punt to Ted Ginn Jr and stand about as he races untouched to the end zone, and suddenly a 49ers team whose only accomplishment thus far was racking up penalties is within two points. Rams answer 7 with 3, and Troy Smith completes two huge plays — 25 yards to Vernon Davis, 60 yards to Michael Crabtree — and the visitors suddenly looked poised to complete every St Louisan’s nightmare scenario.

The Rams went in the tunnel down 14-12, leaving a stunned crowd to contemplate, for 20 minutes, what the hell they had gotten so fired up for. How had the 49ers sucked all the momentum out of the building? Was this to be the same old Rams, after all?

Sometimes, though, football is a deceptively simple game to analyze. When the bell rang for the second half, one team got out of the corner and was simply better than the other, and that team was the Rams. They kicked off to San Francisco and the Rams defense set about shattering the eggshell-thin veneer of confidence that the 49ers held about themselves.

Six plays later, that job was done:

As it turns out, all it took was a good pass rush and an easy interception by Singletary’s future son-in-law, Oshiomogo Atogwe, leading to this epic meltdown on the sideline. It also led to a Rams field goal, and a 15-14 lead that our boys in blue steadily reinvested in like a good nest egg. After three drives of three-and-out in the first half, the Rams had none in the second, trucking consistently and methodically down the field by giving Bradford the keys and letting him drive.

And here’s the key stat, especially for an offensive line that has been earning withering scorn for their inability to open running lanes: on 38 dropbacks by their budding star quarterback, Sam Bradford was only hit twice, only sacked once.

Bradford got all of his key receivers involved in the second half, hitting Brandon Gibson, Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola and Daniel Fells for key gains, while racking up 168 yards passing in the latter frame. The biggest play of them all, a 46 yard strike down the left sideline, went to Danario Alexander, who is suddenly healthy and looking like a serious X factor in the weeks to come.

Yes, I said “weeks”, with an S. Because the Rams now firmly control their destiny, and head up to Seattle to complete Mission Improbable: winning the NFC West and bringing a playoff game back to these bewildered and delighted Saint Louis Rams fans.

We won’t know what hit us.