- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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EARTH CITY, Mo. – Of all the things to come from Jeff Fisher’s first season as St. Louis Rams head coach in 2012, the most positive development was his team’s drastic improvement in the NFC West.
Although that Rams finished just 7-8-1 and out of the postseason, it was at least able to hang its hat on going 4-1-1 in the division many believe has emerged as the best in football. They still finished behind San Francisco and Seattle overall but they were ahead of Arizona and the trajectory pointed up rather than down.
Fast-forward to this week’s meeting against the Cardinals, and any traction the Rams seemed to gain within the division a year ago has dissipated. The Rams are 1-3 against their NFC West brethren and instead of taking another step in the direction of the divisional penthouse, the Rams have actually found themselves headed the opposite way.
If the Rams fall in Arizona this weekend, they’ll guarantee themselves a losing record in the NFC West, a likely last-place finish in the division and face the sobering reality that they now have not two but three teams to overcome to re-establish themselves as contenders.
“I don’t think this division wants to go away in any way, shape or form,” linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. “I thought we made a really big statement last year with how we played in the division, but it’s frustrating to come back and not do so well this year. We just can’t be one of those hot and cold teams, especially in our division. We have got to play tough in our division.”
The Rams’ lone win in the NFC West this season came in the season opener against this same Arizona team back on Sept. 8. They needed a late rally to win that game but they’ve been held winless in the three divisional games they’ve played since, including a convincing sweep at the hands of San Francisco.
With a trip to Seattle the lone remaining divisional game after Sunday, the Rams’ best chance for another NFC West victory is this week unless the Seahawks already have home-field advantage wrapped up before Week 17.
“Getting swept by San Fran definitely hurts,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “We are going down to Arizona and we’ve got to try to get another one. Then we have got to try to steal one from Seattle, which it’s pretty impossible to win up there it seems like so we definitely think it’s important. You have got to have a competitive record in the division, so this is a huge game for us.”
St. Louis has showed plenty of signs of improvement since its first meeting with the Cardinals, but Arizona has probably had even more.
In the time since that meeting, the Cardinals have discovered a much-needed running game spurred by the addition of speedy rookie back Andre Ellington to the mix. The passing game has also taken off with the emergence of Michael Floyd as a dangerous option opposite Larry Fitzgerald and the offensive line has stabilized a little bit. The offense’s overall understanding of Bruce Arians’ scheme has also been a key to the improvement.
Defensively, the Cardinals have lived up to the preseason hype with the return of linebacker Daryl Washington and the addition of safety Tyrann Mathieu to the starting lineup, leading that group back into top-10 status.
At 7-5, Arizona is on the outside looking in for the postseason, but it’s certainly still in the mix and heading in the right direction. Of course, the Cardinals have still struggled mightily within the division despite their overall record improvement. Arizona hasn’t won an NFC West game since the 2012 season opener against Seattle.
“I was listening, according to some statistics out there, our record against opponents out of our division and our record in our division, so it really is the best division in football, in my opinion, and it’s tough,” Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell said. “Everybody in this division knows that every win comes with a hard-fought battle. Nothing comes easy in this division, and that’s what makes it special, though, but it’s been too long.
“It’s something that we’re really hoping to get now going almost two years without a division win -- that’s unheard of. This is the NFL. It isn’t supposed to be that way, so we’ve got to find a way to be competitive in our division.”
In many ways, Arizona’s improvement this season is the opposite of what the Rams did last year. The Cardinals are winning outside of the NFC West but struggling inside it. St. Louis did the opposite in 2012.
With four weeks to play, the Rams are mathematically alive in the postseason picture, but for all intents and purposes are done in terms of the playoffs. But that doesn’t mean this game holds no meaning in the big picture.
The Rams have been building toward what they hope will be a breakthrough 2014 season, but it’s reasonable to wonder how feasible that will be if they find themselves falling behind yet another team in the division that already has proved to be the most physically demanding in all of football.
Seattle and San Francisco don’t appear to be going anywhere from their respective perches atop the division. Arizona has emerged as the division’s sleeper. So where does that leave the Rams?
“There are tough teams in our division and we want to be able to make a statement in the NFC West and let people know that we are still going to be here, we are still playing and we are still a physical team that can beat you,” Dunbar said. “It’s something we definitely have to do these last two [division] games.”