A quick look around the league scoreboard revealed the nature of December football, of what happens when the playoffs loom large and the pressure ratchets up. Those teams that can handle the pressure have a huge advantage over those that cannot. And the result is, more often than not, a blowout. One team throws a big punch, and the other crumples to the mat.
The Rams blew themselves out early on Sunday, cracking under the strain of carrying unexpected playoff expectations. A mistake-laden second quarter gifted the Vikings with 20 free points and turned a tightly competitive 7-7 home finale into a heart-guttering exhibition of "same old Rams" for the home crowd. That the Rams came back in the second half to give brief hope for an impossible comeback was good. It shows the competitive spirit of this team, the fight in this team that Jeff Fisher has instilled. But it wasn't enough to make up for these glaring mistakes:
TD Vikings (14-7): Adrian Peterson takes a wicked inside cut on exactly the kind of running play that Paul warned us about in his preview, and races untouched for an 82-yard score. Coach Fisher said after the game that the Rams were in the wrong defense.
FG Vikings (17-7): Scott Wells, who had a very uneven game at center, mishandles the snap on third down to Bradford deep in his own end, and the Vikings recover. This was in the dry, spotless surface of the climate-controlled Dome, with his quarterback directly under center. It's hard to imagine a player that cut his teeth on Green Bay's icy tundra botching a snap this badly, but he did.
TD Vikings (24-7): Again on third down, Bradford and Wells spot what looks like an overload blitz on Barry Richardson's side of the field, which should have had sirens sounding. They call it out and try a blitz-beater to the other side of the field. However, Leslie Frazier pulled two of his rushers back, sending defensive end Everson Griffen looping all the way around the back of the formation, and directly in the path of Bradford's quick pass. It was a hell of a defensive call and play, but a huge costly mistake for our team nonetheless.
All of that happened in less than five minutes of game time. And it was followed by yet another missed long field goal try from Greg Zuerlein — new nickname: "Scott Norwood" — that set up a 29-yard "drive" for another set of cheap points to close out the first half.
I said before the game that it felt like the Rams were lining up against the 2010 version of themselves – facing a team with a superstar running back, a strong and inventive defense, and a quarterback on a very short leash from his coaches. They also faced off against the wall that the 2010 team ran into time and again. That team had multiple chances to get over the hump, to get over .500 and into a legitimate playoff conversation. They failed each time.
We think this 2012 team is much improved over that 2010 one in many ways. But in this test of December mettle in a win-or-go-home scenario between two teams with faint playoff hopes, the end result was disappointingly familiar.
It also underscores a hard truth about where we stand, one year into the FIsher-Snead rebuild. This is not a playoff-worthy team yet, playoff scenarios and "in the hunt" status be damned. The Rams have a strong genetic blueprint that is capable of putting up a fight for four quarters, and their second-half comeback attested to that. But they have more growing up to do, and more necessary sharpening of tools and minds to do, before they can take the next step.