Two Sundays ago in Arizona, the Rams' playoff hopes -- such as they were -- officially got extinguished. Before the team left the visitors' locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium, several veterans had a message for the youngsters.
The playoff hopes are over, but the season isn't. We still come to practice, we still come to work, we don't coast.
We play hard. We play with passion. In the NFL, you're constantly being evaluated. What you put on film stays with you.
"Don't be that team that tanks it once you're mathematically eliminated," linebacker James Laurinaitis said.
Has Laurinaitis seen that happen on any of his previous four Rams teams?
"I've been on some bad teams," Laurinaitis replied. "That's all I'll say."
The young Rams, and really the entire team, responded to those words in strong fashion last week with a 27-16 victory over a New Orleans team that is among the NFC's elite.
Veteran Rams offensive tackle Jake Long said the New Orleans game showed "that we're a team. That we're motivated. That we're not gonna quit, and this is important to us."
"That was a full 'team' game," he continued. "All three phases, we all played together. We all played great. It shows you what type of football we can play when we play consistently. We just gotta keep building off of that."
With two games to play, the Rams are 6-8. It may not mean that much to the NFL world at-large, but to Rams players, coaches, the front office -- and probably many Rams fans -- there's a big difference between 6-10 and 8-8.
Most preseason prognosticators didn't expect the playoffs, not for a Rams team that entered the season with the youngest roster in the league for the second year in a row.
The general consensus seemed to be somewhere in that 7-9 to 9-7 range.
With a victory against Tampa Bay in Sunday's home finale, the Rams would get to seven wins. The following week in Seattle, the Seahawks could rest many of their starters if they have the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs already wrapped up, as expected.
Even without that, the Rams have played the Seahawks about as tough as anyone in the NFL in 2012 and '13, winning 19-13 and losing 20-13 to them last season.
Then losing 14-9 this year in a game in which the Rams were stopped on fourth-and-goal at the Seattle 1 on the last play of the game.
So given their strength of schedule and given the fact they lost starting quarterback Sam Bradford in Game 7, a 7-9 or 8-8 finish would make the 2013 season easier to take for the Rams.
"It definitely would mean a lot to us," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "The playoffs were a goal for us. Unfortunately we weren't able to capitalize on that. But it's all about getting better. Year in, year out, as long as you're getting better you're going in the right direction.
"Sometimes it just takes baby steps. And I think that's where we are right now."
It doesn't take a math major to figure that you can't get to eight without first reaching seven, which brings us to Sunday's noon kickoff with the Buccaneers.
It has been seven weeks since the Rams last played a team with a losing record -- Tennessee on Nov. 3.
Go back a couple of weeks before the Titans came to town, and seven of the Rams' past eight games have been against teams that have now clinched playoff berths, are leading their division or are in playoff contention.
Those teams: Carolina, Seattle, Indianapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, Arizona and New Orleans.
Now here come the Bucs, who began the year with eight consecutive losses but since have won four of six to bring a 4-10 record to St. Louis.
Instead of staring at Drew Brees, Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson at quarterback, it's rookie Mike Glennon facing the Rams.
Instead of trying to tackle Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte or Frank Gore at running back, Tampa Bay comes in with Bobby Rainey.
Instead of tangling with a big, talented receiver such as Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery Anquan Boldin, or Larry Fitzgerald ... Never mind, the Buccaneers have one of those in Vincent Jackson.
And they have a young, up-and-coming defense that features playmakers at all three levels.
Despite some big victories over the past couple of seasons under coach Jeff Fisher, such as against Seattle and San Francisco in 2012, and division leaders New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Chicago in 2013, the Rams also have lost some clunkers. See: the New York Jets and Tennessee, for example.
It was perhaps with that in mind that Fisher had some words with the team at the end of Friday's practice -- the last full-scale practice of game week.
"They understand that this is not the Tampa Bay team that went 0-8," Fisher said. "This is a good football team. As we've mentioned to them, I think in the last six weeks they've either gotten points on the opening drive or the second drive. And it's a very good defense."
The Bucs are 4-2 in those last six weeks, losing only to Carolina (10-4) and San Francisco (10-4) in that span.
This is the type of matchup that can test the mental toughness, the consistency of a young, inexperienced squad that's not used to winning.
It's the kind of opponent that good teams, the kind that end up in the playoffs, find a way to beat.
"It's a game of ups and downs," Rams right guard Rodger Saffold said. "We need to continue to learn how to win."
"We've unfortunately had to take a few more ups and downs than we have wanted to this year," wide receiver Austin Pettis said. "But it was a great experience for those guys to go through this. And they're really understanding how much it takes, and how hard it is to win on Sundays."
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