It's December and the Rams are officially being listed as "in the hunt" for the NFL Playoffs. This is a stunning development for a team whose Super Bowl odds, as of two weeks ago, was side-by-side with the wretched Oakland Raiders at 750/1. It's also a sign that the Rams might be becoming a much more dangerous team than we had expected, this quickly into a rebuild.
It is not a sign – not yet – that the Rams are ready to anoint themselves a playoff-caliber team. "This young team believes we can go in and play with anybody," as Jeff Fisher told Yahoo's Mike Silver. And over the next month of games, they'll get to prove that as they face off against four teams who are just as much "in the hunt" as themselves. The 5-7 Bills, 6-6 Vikings, 6-6 Bucs and 7-5 Seahawks give us a series of opponents with a steadily escalating degree of difficulty. And they'll have to finish on the road.
When I sat back at the last high point of the Rams' season, after their 3-2 start, I saw a lot of winnable games on their schedule. Then we lost to the Dolphins and the Jets, but balanced that out with huge wins (and a tie) against our division foes.
That run of games shows the truth of most teams that hover around .500 – this isn't a bland, mediocre team that goes out and gives a bland mediocre effort every week. This team of developing young talent and well-fit spare parts is capable of highs that rival those of a ten- or twelve-win team, and equally capable of dismal embarrassments that hearken back to our own awful past.
It shows that this team is still learning its process, to borrow a term from Nick Saban, but if it needs a blueprint it doesn't have to look much farther than Sunday's gritty win over the Niners. We'd love to see more downfield offense, but what we will see is Bradford being careful and efficient with the football and looking for mismatches. We'd love to see a defense that is shutdown-caliber week in and week out, but what we will see is more of this "soft" play in the secondary designed to keep scores close and take advantage of opportunities for ball-hawking.
We'd love to see our team go on the road and establish itself against premier weapons like CJ Spiller, Marshawn Lynch and Doug "Muscle Hamster" Martin. We'd love to see the Rams defend the Dome in their final home game, and finish with a winning home record for the first time since the soft-scheduled 2010 season.
We'd love – more than anything else – to finish the season with a win in Seattle that knocked those accursed Seahawks out of the playoffs.
Being a pragmatist (a fancy word for 'pessimist'), I don't expect we'll get everything we'd love to happen. But if this Rams team is going to deserve to be considered a team "in the hunt," these next four weeks are our playoffs. And if they take care of business, at that point, who knows?