With a resume that includes three NFL conference championship games and a Super Bowl title, Aqib Talib knows what it takes for a team to play well down the stretch. And now that he is recovered from a left ankle injury, the Rams’ veteran cornerback says he is ready to show the way.
The Rams on Monday returned to practice rested from a week off, and needing only a victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday to clinch their second consecutive NFC West title. The Rams are 10-1, with five games remaining, and they have the look of a team that’s ready for a deep run in the playoffs.
But maintaining the status quo is not the hallmark of championship teams, according to Talib, who learned something about playoff pushes during stints with the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos.
“You gotta crank it up a notch,” Talib, an 11th-year pro, said Monday, shortly after the Rams designated him to return from injured reserve.
The Rams are tied with the New Orleans Saints (10-1) for home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. The Rams play the Lions, and then have games against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, on the road against the Arizona Cardinals, and at home against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Saints, who defeated the Rams 45-35 in Week 9, play on the road against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night, and have games at Tampa Bay and at Carolina before finishing the season at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Carolina Panthers.
Rams coach Sean McVay preaches — and his players echo — a one-game-at-a-time mentality. But Talib, acquired in a trade with the Broncos last March, said that at this stage of the season, extra attention to detail is required for players and teams that want to play well beyond the regular season.
“If you plan on doing something, you should have about eight games left,” he said, adding, “So your last eight games, you got to be working harder than your first 11 games.
“So this is when the season really starts. Right now.”
Cornerback Sam Shields, who signed with the Rams during the offseason, agreed that teams poised to make deep playoff runs do not stand pat. Shields played seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers, winning a Super Bowl during his rookie season in 2010 and advancing to the NFC title game in 2014.
“Extra film, extra communication, whatever it takes to help us go to a different level,” Shields said.
Rams players sounded energized after six days off. Their scheduled bye came after a wild 54-51 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on “Monday Night Football.”
Safety John Johnson said players’ bodies were nearly tapped out after playing 11 consecutive games before the break.
“Like, ‘No more! No more!’” Johnson said. “[The bye week] came at a great time.”
Said linebacker Cory Littleton: “I’m pretty sure everybody feels rejuvenated.”
Talib had been eager to rejoin teammates for workouts after suffering a left ankle injury against the Chargers in Week 3 and undergoing surgery.
Before the last two games, he appeared fit while performing agility drills on the sideline.
“I’ve been getting real hard workouts lately, but it’s nothing like playing in an actual game,” he said.
The Rams can use Talib’s talent and experience. They rank 20th in the NFL in total defense, giving up 372.5 yards per game. They are 19th in passing defense (252.6 ypg), 21st in rushing defense (119.9 ypg) and 20th in scoring defense (25.6 points per game.
Talib’s return is expected to help take the onus off of cornerback Marcus Peters, who struggled for much of the season but has played well the last two games.
Coaches will not make a decision about activating Talib for Sunday’s game at Ford Field until trainers assess him during practices.
“Just his presence for our team will be a big benefit to us,” McVay said, “having him out on the practice field.”
Talib said the first step was done: He no longer is on injured reserve. Now he must prove his readiness during practices.
“I guess they’re going to do the eye test or whatever,” he said, “to see if I’m going to go Sunday or not.”