ST. LOUIS — The Rams desperately needed a win and played like it. The Eagles desperately wanted to stay healthy and played like it.
Rookie Steven Jackson’s best NFL performance carried St. Louis to a 20-7 victory against Philadelphia that kept the Rams in the NFC playoff race. Jackson rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown, but he also limped off midway through the fourth quarter with a bruised right knee.
With the Eagles (13-2) played it safe. Running back Brian Westbrook, their prime offensive threat with star wideout Terrell Owens sidelined, was scratched, along with starting tackle Tra Thomas. Their reserves were no match for a Rams squad with its season on the line.
Philadelphia gained a mere 155 yards against a defense ranked 24th. With starting quarterback Donovan McNabb in the game for one series, they gained 63 of those yards and got their only score.
With the victory, St. Louis ensured a meaningful finale against the New York Jets. If the Rams (7-8) beat the Jets on Sunday and Seattle loses to Atlanta, St. Louis will win the NFC West. If the Seahawks win and take the division, St. Louis can make the playoffs by winning and having Minnesota lose at Washington, or by Carolina and New Orleans tying.
The Jets need a win to get into the AFC playoffs.
Jackson, who missed one game with a bruised knee and did not get on the field last week despite being healthy, revitalized a rushing game that totaled 88 yards in the past two games, both losses that dropped the Rams to the edge of elimination. The overall offense was effective against Philadelphia’s second-string defense, gaining 419 yards.
Also returning was quarterback Marc Bulger, whose right shoulder kept him out of those last two losses. Bulger was sharp enough, going 20-for-27 for 233 yards, and hit Isaac Bruce for a 7-yard touchdown, the only score of the third quarter.
In a stark departure from his passing persona, Rams coach Mike Martz, perhaps sensing it would be Jackson’s night, called 10 running plays on the opening drive that covered 73 yards. Jackson ran for 46 yards and Marshall Faulk for 27 before Jackson surged in from the 5.
The first-round pick, the first running back chosen, also had a 43-yard run in the second period on a drive that ended with Jeff Wilkins missing a 44-yard field goal.
Wilkins made a 28-yarder for a 10-7 halftime lead. He later added a 29-yarder.
Freddie Mitchell’s first-quarter touchdown catch was his first of the season, and the Eagles will be looking for more of that with Owens sidelined. He beat safety Antuan Edwards in the back of the end zone, reaching up for McNabb’s pass to tie it at 7.
That was it for McNabb as the Eagles remained in their protective mode with nothing to gain from the game. They have a league-high nine Pro Bowlers, and most of them barely played.
The Eagles got a scare in the first half when cornerbacks Lito Sheppard, a Pro Bowler, and Dexter Wynn collided chasing a pass by Wilkins on a fake punt. Both lay on the ground for several minutes before walking off, and Sheppard stayed out with a quadriceps contusion. Rookie fullback Thomas Tapeh was carted off with 28 seconds remaining with an undisclosed injury.
In McNabb’s stead, Koy Detmer was dismal, going 1-for-6 for 5 yards before third-stringer Jeff Blake came on in the fourth quarter. That gave the night the feel of an August preseason game for the Eagles, even while the Rams were trying to get to a significant January contest.