Of the NFL teams still alive in the long march toward the Super Bowl, the St. Louis Rams (8-5) face by far the most difficult remaining schedule: Minnesota (11-2), Tampa Bay (8-5) and New Orleans (8-5).
But at least they'll get NFL leader Minnesota at home Sunday, when they can win if they do two things right:
The Ram offense will have to regain much of the form it flashed long ago during a spectacular season-opening six-game winning streak.
The Ram defense will have to retain the form it showed in Carolina Sunday when the Panthers won without scoring an offensive touchdown, 16-3.
During Ram quarterback Kurt Warner's second start after a 5 1/2-week injury layoff, he'll be better--but can his defense double-cover Minnesota's swift receivers, Randy Moss and Chris Carter, and still stop swift runner Robert Smith up the middle?
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Culpepper: Speed, Size, Smarts
As usual, it was quarterback Daunte Culpepper, the Vikings' 250-pound virtual rookie, who saw them through their last start, 24-17, against tenacious Detroit last week.
In their offense a year ago, the Vikings included Moss, Carter and running back Smith, but Culpepper wasn't included, and so they dropped out of the playoffs when Warner prevailed by a familiar Ram score, 49-37.
Culpepper makes things different, bringing in not only great quarterback speed and size but also an alert presence that deepens the workload for every defense.
He has Minnesota on the road to the NFL's only 14-2 finish.
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Untimely Drops Killed Warner
On the afternoon when the Ram defense finally kept an opponent from scoring a touchdown, the Ram offense lost its best chance to restore its old status of invincibility when, in the first quarter, Warner's first two downfield thrusts ended in two dropped passes by wide receivers Az-Zahir Hakim and Torry Holt.
At the time, Warner and running back Marshall Faulk, though struggling through injuries, were playing football about well as they ever have.
Warner was zipping his passes with what seemed to be his usual accuracy, and Faulk, whose shoulder injury bothered him increasingly as the game wore on, was a threat on every play, gaining ground as both runner and receiver.
But just then, in an uncalled-for sequence, first Hakim and then Holt dropped well-thrown passes, and the air went out of the Rams.
On the instant, they lost the momentum that was about to lead them to their old arrogance.
In Warner's comeback game, what the Rams had needed most was an early touchdown or two to restore that old feeling of irresistible accomplishment.
Instead, they lost the football, then their confidence, then their skill level, then the game.
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Long Layoff Saps the Mind
By the second half in Carolina, Warner, the NFL's great quarterback of the last two seasons, seemed dazed.
He was clearly not in control of his psychology, and, due to the lingering effects of his little-finger fracture, not really in control of the football.
It's an odd-shaped ball that when thrown accurately is primarily thrown with three digits, thumb, middle finger and pinky.
Damage one of the three and you're in trouble, as Warner was Sunday, obviously.
More than that, during his long layoff, his mind had slowed down.
In October when Warner's finger broke after he had won six games in a row, he was the fastest thinker on every field.
During his six-week convalescence, however, the NFL's many talented defensive players caught up mentally and then surpassed him to reach a season peak Sunday, when Warner played like a man just out of training camp.
That day as the Rams' MVP quarterback stepped back to look for Faulk, Holt, Hakim or Isaac Bruce in the maze of fast-moving Carolina defensive players, it must have seemed to him that everyone was playing at warp speed--everyone but Warner.
He might have struggled on to win if Holt and Hakim had held those two first-quarter passes; but subsequently, he couldn't lift a demoralized team because he was out of it himself.
Eventually this season, Warner will be the old Warner again, which, for the Rams, will be enough only if, meantime, their defense holds up.
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Fiedler Knows He Has a Defense
Of the league's numerous surprise teams this season, none has been more surprising to American Conference opponents than the Miami Dolphins, who are 10-3 and a likely champion of the Eastern Division now after losing a Super Bowl coach, Jimmy Johnson, plus an all-time passer, Dan Marino, and after taking on a losing coach, Dave Wannstedt--who was 41-57 in six seasons at Chicago--plus an Ivy League passer, Jay Fiedler, who has survived both a Dartmouth education and a Jacksonville Jaguar past.
More impressively, Fiedler survived an injury layoff to throw three touchdown passes Sunday in Buffalo of all places in December no less as the Dolphins astonishingly routed the defensively strong Buffalo Bills, 33-6.
On the day that Fiedler and Warner both came back to football, how could the Miami quarterback do that when the St. Louis quarterback couldn't?
First, Fiedler had suffered a shoulder injury, which, unlike a passer's hand fracture, courage can render moot.
Second, Miami is a running team for which Fiedler threw only 21 times in Buffalo, completing 13 at carefully selected intervals.
And third, psychologically, Fiedler knows he can rely on a powerful defense, unlike Warner, who must always think in terms of outscoring everybody.
In this era, nonetheless, the Miami formula can't succeed in the playoffs.
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Victimized in NFL Crapshoot
The crapshoot that place kicking has become this year in pro football calls for changes that the NFL should but might not consider.
In large numbers, great football players keep losing because of the inconsistencies of the soccer players their teams hire.
The most conspicuous example of a frustrated talent, Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon, played well enough to win again Sunday, when the new Raider kicker, Sebastian Janikowski, failed again. Janikowski missed a 44-yarder with about four minutes left as Pittsburgh held on, 21-20.
Gannon will surely now win the rest, starting with the New York Jets at Oakland Sunday night and following at Seattle Dec. 16, a Saturday, and against Carolina on Christmas Eve, but Janikowski has put the Raiders (10-3) in a must-win bind just ahead of the Denver Broncos (9-4), who hold the tiebreaker edge.
As Denver's Mike Shanahan continued as coach of the year, the uniquely wounded Broncos cooled down the streaking Saints in New Orleans Sunday, 38-23, and can win their last three against Seattle, Kansas City and San Francisco.
Even sorrier victims than Oakland of the NFL's kicking-crapshoot season are Tennessee and Philadelphia, whose game Sunday was going to end with an Eagle victory, 13-12, until Titan kicker Al Del Greco suddenly hit one from 50 yards out on the final play, 15-13.
Picture the plight of Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb, winning on a brilliant scramble, then losing to a 50-yard field goal by, of all people, Del Greco, whose failures had cost the Titans two of their last three.
Picture the plight of the Titans, who would be 12-1 and sailing to the Super Bowl if Del Greco could kick straight.
Why does the NFL want this kind of league?
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Moeller Puts Lions Up There
The Detroit Lions (8-5) are developing into one of the NFL's elite teams under their new coach, Gary Moeller, whom many will view as the league's best midseason appointee ever if the Lions win their last three at Green Bay Sunday, then at the New York Jets and against Chicago,
Bobby Ross, who voluntarily left Detroit so abruptly last month, realized he had something good there but thought he couldn't bring it to the surface himself.
Give Ross that.
Moeller brought it out, proving it most conclusively in the only game he has lost, the Minnesota game last week, when the Lions kept an explosive opponent from running away after the Vikings had opened an early 14-0 lead.
In time, the Lions lost, but only by a touchdown, 24-17, amd only because of Minnesota's superior speed, most noticeably on offense.
Overall speed is the most important quality in modern football, which Minnesota Coach Dennis Green plainly understands, and which Moeller, in his first offseason venture, will have to match to catch the Vikings in 2001.
The two things that made the Rams what they were in last year's Super Bowl-winning season--and early in 2000--were Warner's quarterbacking and team speed, and after losing to the Rams in the 1999 playoffs, Green made some all-out moves to improve both his quarterback speed and his blocking speed up front.
His choices were deemed experimental and chancy, particularly in Green's elevation of virtual-rookie Culpepper, but Moeller, to upgrade Detroit, will have to do something similarly startling this spring.
Not that the Lions need a new quarterback.
Charlie Batch, their incumbent quarterback, is of Super Bowl quality when uninjured.
There are, however, Lion positions where the incumbents are getting older and slower.
It was John McKay, the 1960s coach of the USC Trojans, who first introduced speed as football's essential element.
That changed college football, in which McKay's teams soon began winning national championships.
And eventually, it changed pro football--although, at Tampa Bay, McKay had the misfortune to serve a front office whose interest in the dollar surpassed its interest in winning.
Moeller doesn't figure to have that problem at Detroit, where owner William Clay Ford, though a dedicated and successful capitalist, also burns to win on the football front.
The pitfall for Moeller is his old conservatism, which might not have been a liability when he was winning college games at Michigan, but which could cost him and Ford dearly at Detroit.
He has the tools there for wide-open football, which, and nothing but, has won all the recent Super Bowls.
Of the contenders this season, only Tennessee fails to understand the principles of the modern wide-open game, but Tennessee leads the league in talent.
From the Titans' point of view, there is only one Super Bowl question: Will great talent trump great passing and great speed?Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times