ST. LOUIS — Some of the NFL's top teams have found the underdog St. Louis Rams quite the handful. Now, the Rams get a chance to be the favorites.
Though they're winding up their 10th consecutive season without a winning record, the Rams' last three wins have come against division leaders. They whipped the 10-win Saints last week, humbled the Colts on the road, and doubled up on the Bears, plus they were a whisker away from upsetting the NFC West-leading Seahawks.
"We've showed we can play with great teams, and beat great teams," said Robert Quinn, who leads the NFC with 15 sacks.
The Rams (6-8) have a different challenge this week — avoiding a letdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10). St. Louis was favored by 5 1/2 points.
"Sometimes we play below the level we're capable of," Quinn said. "We need to be more consistent."
They clicked across the board to beat New Orleans after getting eliminated from postseason consideration, and the incentive now for the NFL's youngest team is matching last year's win total. That 7-8-1 finish in the first year under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead marked them as an up-and-coming franchise.
Sure, this year has been a letdown, but it's not yet the time to be evaluating talent for next year.
"We're playing to win them," Fisher said. "We just want to finish up strong."
The same goes for the Buccaneers.
After an 0-8 start, they've won four of six. They're trending up despite precious little production on offense, posting the four lowest yardage totals of the year the last four games.
"Early in the year we found ways to lose," coach Greg Schiano said. "A very strange year. We've stuck together, no finger pointing. They're playing for each other."
Five things to look for in Bucs-Rams:
UP AND DOWN: In three wins since replacing Sam Bradford, quarterback Kellen Clemens has five touchdown passes with no interceptions and a 119.3 passer rating. In four losses, Clemens has two touchdown passes, five interceptions and a 60.6 passer rating. The competition has a lot to do with that, given three of the losses came against teams with top 10 defenses. The lone stinker was a seven-point loss at home and on short rest in Week 9 to the Titans, Fisher's old team.
NO OFFENSE: Though rookie quarterback Mike Glennon has nice overall numbers, Tampa Bay's punchless attack has been 1 for 10 on third downs in the last two games. That's putting way too much on the defense. The Buccaneers had 183 total yards and gave up a season-high 33 points last week in a loss to the 49ers.
"I don't think it would be fair to say it's one thing — if it's personnel, if it's scheme, if it's coaching, if it's performance. There are a lot of things that go in to it," Schiano said of the offensive woes. The Bucs are last overall in offense and last in passing offense.
ON THE RUN: Rams rookie Zac Stacy is coming off one of his best games, gaining 133 yards with career highs of 28 carries and a 40-yard touchdown run. Though he didn't start until Week 5, Stacy has a good chance at reaching 1,000 yards; he needs 146 yards the final two weeks. The Rams have emphasized the run since Bradford's season-ending knee injury in Week 7 and Clemens figures to keep feeding the ball to Stacy and fellow rookie Bennie Cunningham. The passing game could again miss dynamic rookie Tavon Austin, hobbled the last two weeks by a sprained left ankle.
CHASING QUARTERBACKS: Robert Quinn leads the NFC with 15 sacks and is coming off a huge game against the Saints. On one of his two sacks on Drew Brees, Quinn also had a forced fumble and fumble recovery. That puts a burden on Buccaneers tackle Donald Penn. If they pay too much attention, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford could capitalize. Glennon has absorbed 31 sacks in 11 starts, including four by the 49ers last week.
Gerald McCoy leads the Bucs' pass rush with eight sacks, including six in the last six games. Linebacker Lavonte David is the leading tackler, plus has six sacks and five interceptions. Tampa Bay has 21 interceptions, second most in the NFL, and Clemens noted many of them are on tipped balls. Clemens' strong suits are mobility and game management.
EYES ON THE BALL: It's only natural for both teams to play the "what if" game. What if the Rams had scored on the final play against Seattle? What if they hadn't spotted opponents so many double-digit leads early in the season? What if they hadn't flopped against beatable Tennessee?
What if the Buccaneers hadn't lost a tight one against the Jets in the opener thanks to David's late hit? If they'd pulled that one out, would it have served as a springboard instead of an omen?
"We don't look back at that game saying, 'Oh man, that really set our season off to the wrong start,'" wide receiver Vincent Jackson said. "Obviously, we had opportunities each and every week after that to get wins and we didn't do so. It's always about the next week."