The St. Louis Rams' return to "Monday Night Football" for the first time since 2006 comes as no accident.
The organization, boosted by quarterback Sam Bradford's arrival in 2010, has taken a giant step forward since bottoming out at 1-15 two years ago.
It's time to take another step after a few recent stumbles -- or risk succumbing to a 2011 schedule that gets tougher in October.
Facing the New York Giants on the road generally wouldn't qualify as much of an opportunity for an unproven team. But if the Rams are truly ascending, they should have at least a chance to beat a team with a 7-7 record in its last 14 home games. The Giants lost their opener at Washington and have an injury list unrivaled in the NFL, except perhaps by the Rams.
Winning a road game on the Monday night stage would stand as a long-sought signature victory for the Rams under third-year coach Steve Spagnuolo.
The Rams have beaten only one opponent with a winning record since 2008, and that was a 2-1 Seattle team last season. They have played only one truly important game, falling flat against the Seahawks with the NFC West title at stake in Week 17 last season.
Bradford has one touchdown pass with six interceptions in his last six starts after a six-game stretch with 11 TDs and one pick. He enters this game against the Giants relatively alone, having lost Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson (quadriceps) and top receiver Danny Amendola (elbow) to injuries in the opener. There's only an outside chance Jackson will play against the Giants.
Bradford practiced fully this week after an injured right index finger prevented him from finishing the Rams' 31-13 home defeat to Philadelphia in Week 1. As much as I thought Spagnuolo would avoid getting swept by his previous two employers to open the season, picking the Rams against the Giants would seem to be a stretch after Jackson, Amendola, right tackle Jason Smith (ankle) and cornerback Ron Bartell (neck) landed on the injury report.
But there is some hope.
Three reasons the Rams have a chance, even as six-point betting underdogs:
Putting together a game plan to contain Vick required making tradeoffs that wound up hurting the Rams. Manning is much more conventional as a passer, allowing the Rams to plan with more confidence.
Attempts to contain Vick's scrambling compromised the Rams' ability to stop regular running plays. They had spent all offseason acquiring players known for their strength against the run, only to watch Philadelphia rush for 237 yards, the Eagles' fifth-highest total under coach Andy Reid.
"I'll put that one on me," Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole told reporters Friday. "We felt like we needed to zone pressure them a little bit to try to contain the quarterback. We didn’t fit up all our run gaps and our zone dogs as well as we should have. I probably should have played it a little bit closer to the vest. We were trying to see if we could make something happen to see if we could get a turnover."
Only Jay Cutler has thrown more interceptions than Manning since the start of the 2009 season.
2. The Rams' defensive line is formidable.
The Rams sacked Vick three times and held him to 5.8 yards per attempt with a 43.8 completion percentage. The game got away from St. Louis because the team dropped four passes, gave up a fumble return for a touchdown and netted only six points on seven drives averaging 8.8 plays in duration.
Spagnuolo has sought to replicate the defensive line depth he enjoyed as the Giants' defensive coordinator. Chris Long, James Hall and Fred Robbins combined for 25 sacks last season. The team's first-round draft choice, defensive end Robert Quinn, is expected to make his regular-season debut Monday night.
3. The Giants' pass-rushers are hurting.
I'd have an extremely difficult time envisioning a Rams' victory Monday night if the Giants' Pro Bowl defensive ends, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, were functioning near full strength. A neck injury limited Tuck in practice during the week. A knee injury kept out Umenyiora altogether. Neither played in Week 1.
If the Redskins' Rex Grossman could pass for 305 yards and two touchdowns against the Giants, who also have injury issues in their secondary, shouldn't Bradford have a chance at a winning performance? I'm not so sure after watching the Rams go through yet another game without pushing the ball downfield, counter to offseason promises.
Bradford's passes traveled an average of 5.8 yards downfield before reaching their targets, the NFL's third-shortest average for Week 1 and far below Grossman's league-high 14.5-yard average against the Giants.
Going into the season, Bradford said he expected the Rams to deploy aggressive, ever-changing game plans. He said 2010 opponents knew they didn't have to respect downfield throws as the season progressed.
"As the year went along and people realized we weren’t doing it for personnel reasons or schematic reasons, safeties started to creep down," Bradford said during my visit to Rams training camp. "And instead of there being four bodies down there, there were six bodies that we were trying to work concepts into and it just seemed like everything got condensed and the windows got smaller as the year went on."
The Rams' window isn't closing anytime soon, win or lose Monday night. But with games against Green Bay (road), Dallas (road) and New Orleans (home) looming next month, now would be a good time to open it a little wider.