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Back from bye, Rams find themselves in division race

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EARTH CITY, Mo. — It sounds improbable, but as the St. Louis Rams return from their bye, they find themselves in a division race. Yes, the season is only six weeks old, but with the Seattle Seahawks unable to hold fourth-quarter leads, suddenly the division appears there for the taking. Especially since the Rams have already defeated the Seahawks and first-place Arizona Cardinals.

For the last two seasons, the NFC West has been the gold standard in the NFL. Not only has the division supplied the Super Bowl participant in each of the last three seasons, but in 2013 and 2014 combined, division teams had the best cumulative record of any other division: 79-49.

The next best division was the AFC West at 70-58, followed by the AFC North at 69-58-1. The AFC South (49-79), NFC South (53-74-1) and NFC East (60-68) all had losing records.

In 2013, the NFC West was 42-22, with the AFC West next at 37-27. The AFC East (34-30) was the only other division with a winning record.

However, the fall of the San Francisco 49ers to 8-8 last season brought the division back to the pack. The NFC West (37-27) was second to the AFC North (38-25-1).

As Week 7 beckons, one division team will likely fall to 2-5 after Seattle and San Francisco play Thursday night. A Rams win over Cleveland would move them to 3-3, which at worst would keep them 11/2 games behind the Cardinals, which plays Baltimore.

Overall, the division is 10-13 this season, one of three divisions with losing records. The AFC East paces the league at 14-7, followed by the NFC South at 14-8. An opportunity is there.

Jeff Fisher, like any other head coach in the league, avoids talking about anything more than the next game on the schedule. But he did acknowledge knowing that Seattle and Arizona both lost while the Rams were resting.

Asked how his bye weekend was, Fisher said, “It was good, thank you. I got to watch some ball. We got some help in the division. So, we’ll get a little bit more help on Thursday.”

However, when asked about the standings getting tight, he said, “We’ve played five games. They’ve played six. So, there’s a lot of games left. A lot of games left.”

He quickly steered the direction of the discussion to the Browns while engaging in some coach-speak when asked if anything is possible in the division. Fisher said, “Well it’s one week at a time. That’s how we do things. So, our focus is clearly on the Browns right now, who are playing very well. The last three games have been decided or four games have been decided by a touchdown or less. So, they’re playing well.”

Cleveland is 2-4, but three of their defeats have been by a total of 13 points, including three-point losses to San Diego and last Sunday to Denver in overtime.

So, while fans talk about an easing of the schedule, Fisher knows landmines await every Sunday in the NFL.

Still, the reality is that only seven teams in the conference have three or more wins and six will qualify for the post-season.

So, coach, does your team have the makeup to be a contender for the playoffs?

“Again, it’s early,” Fisher said. “I mean, that’s everybody’s goal, but we just have to have a good week and get ready, do the best we can and see if we find a way to win this game.”

SERIES HISTORY: 20th regular-season meeting. Rams lead series, 10-9. The Rams have won three of the last four games, but the last game played in St. Louis was won by the Browns, 27-20, in 2007. The game before that was a 34-3 win by the Rams in their Super Bowl season of 1999.

GAME PLAN

–Feed the beast. That’s what the Rams will try and do once again, establishing their running game with rookie Todd Gurley, while hoping that takes some of the steam from the pass rush and QB Nick Foles can be protected. The Browns have allowed 149.8 rushing yards per game and 5.0 yards per attempt.

Defensively, the goal will be to limit the big plays from QB Josh McCown. They will also have to be mindful on special teams and make sure punt returner Travis Benjamin doesn’t hurt them with big returns. Benjamin is averaging 14.7 yards per return and scored on a 78-yard touchdown.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Rams DRE Robert Quinn vs. Browns LT Joe Thomas.

Thomas is one of the best in the game, but he will have his hands full with Quinn if he isn’t bothered by an injured knee. Quinn has 4.0 sacks in the first five games. The Browns have allowed 22 sacks in their first six games.

–Rams pass defense vs. Browns WR Travis Benjamin and TE Gary Barnidge.

Benjamin has 31 receptions and is averaging 17.0 yards per catch to go with four touchdowns. Barnidge has surprised many with 27 catches, a 15.3-yard average and five touchdowns. Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will probably mix and match on Barnidge with either LB Akeem Ayers or S Mark Barron. The Rams’ pass defense has limited big plays against, and that will be key in this game. The task of controlling Benjamin will likely be a combination of CBs Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner.


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