Not often in recent memory have St. Louis Rams fans been able to look at the second half of the season with any optimism.
Mostly, the last eight games of a Rams season are spent analyzing potential free agents and mock draft boards for next year.
This season, there is no mention of "next year" for these Rams. These Rams still believe there is work left to do.
In a season preview piece I wrote back in August, I said that the Rams, as constructed, were a five- or six-win team.
I thought Jeff Fisher might coach the players up for a couple more wins, but it was too much to expect anything better than a 6-10 season. I still see that as the Rams' record this year.
If the Rams can figure out how to win on the road, which starts and ends with more consistent play from Sam Bradford, the Rams can find their way to 7-9 or even 8-8.
The Rams will probably be favored in only one of their eight remaining games (Week 11 vs. New York Jets). With the rest of the home schedule calling for games against San Francisco and Minnesota, there will be no sure victories coming the Rams' way.
Here are my game-by-game predictions for the second half of the Rams' season.
After the Rams enjoy a week off thanks to their Week 9 bye, they will pick right back up in what is the most brutal part of the team's schedule.
It's always scary for Rams fans when the team matches up against an elite running game.
The 49ers bring the NFL's second-most prolific running attack, averaging over 175 yards per game and 5.9 yards per attempt.
If the Rams are to have any chance to win this game, they must hold the 49ers under 100 rushing yards.
San Francisco failed to rush for 100 yards in both of their two losses (89 yards at Minnesota, 80 yards vs. New York Giants).
The Rams have shown an ability to shut down an opponent's running game. They did so in games against Arizona, Miami and Green Bay, holding each team to 70 yards or less.
While the Cardinals, Dolphins or Packers do not have rushers as dominant as Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, the Rams defense has given up just under 100 yards rushing per game through the team's first seven games. So, this can be done.
The 49ers also have one of the league's best passing defenses, giving up less than 175 yards per game.
It will be tough for the Rams to move the ball against the 49ers defense. The points and yards (passing and rushing) the Giants and Vikings put on the 49ers in their respective wins are eerily similar.
The Rams it seems will need 350 passing yards and 200 rushing yards to defeat the 49ers. I don't see the Rams able to pull off the upset, if for no other reason than they have yet to put together that kind of game this season.
Final Score Prediction: 49ers 28, Rams 13
This is a must-win game for the Rams, at home and against a very overrated and under-achieving Jets team.
If there's a game on the back half of the schedule that the Rams will be favored to win, it will be this one.
Offensively, the Rams and Jets are virtually identical. Through the season's first seven games, the Rams have averaged 106 rushing yards and 209 passing yards per game. The Jets have averaged 110 yards rushing and 200 yards passing. The Jets have scored 16 offensive touchdowns to the Rams' 13.
That means the game should come down to defense and special teams. I like the Rams chances in both.
If the Rams are to take control of the game, it will have to be in the rushing attack, as the Jets have the second-worst run defense (148 yards per game) in the NFL.
The Jets will have a hard time matching up with Daryl Richardson's speed and Steven Jackson's strength.
If the Rams stick to the run game, it should eventually pay off with some nice gains for Richardson and Jackson.
If the game comes down to making a late field goal, I like the Rams' chances.
We all know Greg Zuerlein is capable of making a field goal from almost anywhere on the field.
The Jets' placekicker, Nick Folk, is a perfect 11-for-11 through Week 7; however, he has attempted only three field goals beyond 40 yards. And all of those attempts came in the Jets' Week 7 game against New England.
Final Score Prediction: Rams 23, Jets 20
Assuming the Rams defeat the Jets the week before, this is the chance for the Rams to build a little momentum, win a game on the road and maybe start to turn the season around.
If the Rams lose at home against the Jets, then this will be the game that will define whether the Rams' season ends as a huge failure or instead with some optimism for the future.
The Rams put on quite the show earlier this season when they defeated Arizona 17-3 on Thursday Night Football.
The Rams defense came to play that night, recording nine sacks and recovering a forced fumble. They allowed only a first-quarter field goal among just 282 yards of total offense for the Cardinals.
Arizona has actually played very well on defense this season, giving up less than 17 points per game through Week 7.
Through the season's first seven weeks, the Cardinals have allowed only four rushing touchdowns. And no other team has given up fewer passing touchdowns (six) to opposing offenses than the Cardinals.
So points will obviously be at a premium in this game.
Arizona came into the first matchup against the Rams a perfect 4-0. They have since lost three games in a row coming into Monday night's matchup against San Francisco.
Arizona has changed quarterbacks, and if they fail to defeat the 49ers at home, their season will be in a total free fall.
It seems like the perfect opportunity for the Rams to finally win a game on the road.
Final Score Prediction: Rams 20, Cardinals 10
At this point in the season, the Rams are coming off back-to-back wins and sitting with a record of 5-6.
The Rams will be returning home, where they play very well. Everything seems to be falling the Rams way when it comes to getting back to the .500 mark.
Except the team that is coming to play this week are the 49ers.
Things most likely won't have gone well for the Rams in their first matchup with San Francisco three weeks prior. So this will be a good opportunity for the Rams' coaches and staff to make adjustments.
I expect that the Rams will play better in the season's rematch, but I think it's too much for us to predict a Rams victory.
You'd be hard pressed to find anyone predicting this Rams team would pull off a three-game winning streak. And I'm not going there this season either.
Final Score Prediction: 49ers 23, Rams 17
The Bills are a tough team to figure out.
They have a lot of talent on offense with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson in the running game and Stevie Johnson in the passing game.
The Rams have shown an inability to defend athletic tight ends, and the Bills have one in Scott Chandler (four TDs on 19 receptions through Week 7).
Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't often named among the game's elites, but he is no slouch either.
The Buffalo passing attack is ranked 10th overall in passing yards and fifth in passing touchdowns through Week 7.
I feel I should also mention that the Bills have the game's most prolific running attack, leading the league in both rushing yards and touchdowns through Week 7.
In fact, they have leads of 200-plus yards and four touchdowns on the next closest team.
Yet the team is just 3-4 and in last place in the AFC East.
Outside of the Washington game in Week 2, the Rams have not yet shown they can keep up in an offensive track meet with an opposing offense.
Buffalo should be able to move the ball through the air and on the ground, while finding the end zone a few times.
The Rams need the game of Sam Bradford's career in order to have a chance. The Bills' defense has shown an affinity for allowing career days for opponents, but I'm not optimistic we'll see it this week.
Final Score Prediction: Bills 34, Rams 21
If the Rams thought they faced a tough assignment against the Bills' excellent rushing attack, they will certainly be cringing to see Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings come to town for this Week 15 matchup.
Coming into this season, most prognosticators saw this game as a potential Rams victory.
The Vikings, like the Rams last season, were coming off a terrible year (3-13) and seemed to be in the middle of a rebuilding program with a young quarterback.
The learning curve for the Vikings has been shortened incredibly with the fine play of Christian Ponder, the electric play of Percy Harvin and the brutishly elegant play of Adrian Peterson.
The Vikings, when compared to the Rams, are just a little more advanced, particularly on offense.
Ponder is outperforming Bradford in almost every meaningful statistic. Through Week 8, Ponder's thrown more touchdowns with a better completion percentage and passer rating than Bradford.
The Vikings will have the most dynamic player on the field in Percy Harvin (60 receptions for 667 yards with a league-leading 1,274 all-purpose yards and five total touchdowns).
The Vikings will also have the better running back in Peterson (914 yards from scrimmage and averaging over five yards a carry).
Kyle Rudolph, another incredibly athletic tight end, leads the Vikings in touchdown catches, with five.
I believe the Vikings have too many weapons on offense for the Rams to legitimately keep in check.
Short of the Vikings beating themselves with too many mistakes and turnovers, the Rams won't be able to keep pace on offense.
It should be a high-scoring affair, but the Vikings will score more touchdowns while the Rams will settle for more field goals.
Final Score Prediction: Vikings 33, Rams 24
At this point in the season, the Rams are probably looking at a 5-9 record. They'll be at or near the bottom of the NFC West and they'll be facing back-to-back road games to close out the season.
Again, coming into this season, this game looked like a winnable one for the Rams.
The Buccaneers closed out last season with ten consecutive losses, finishing 4-12. That string of bad play was most likely just an anamoly, as Tampa Bay sits at 3-4 after Week 8 with impressive victories over Carolina and Minnesota.
Since their Week 5 bye, the Buccaneers have scored 102 points in three games (34-point average), while giving up just 62 combined points.
The Rams, on the other hand, won't be playing for much, other than pride.
I'm writing this prediction some eight weeks before the teams actually play, so it's quite possible that the Buccaneers we have seen this month won't be the ones that host the Rams on December 23, but as things stand right now, I don't think this is a game the Rams can win.
Tampa Bay has given up less than 600 rushing yards through its first seven games and have so far forced 14 turnovers, eighth-best in the league.
Final Score Prediction: Buccaneers 31, Rams 17
I hope I'm wrong and I hope that the Rams and Seahawks have a game that will actually mean something in Week 17.
I'd love to see the Rams get to exact some revenge on the Seahawks for their loss to close out the 2010 season, costing the Rams a chance to win the division and host a playoff game.
I suspect, however, that this game won't mean much for either team, especially the Rams.
Based on these predictions, the Rams will be sitting at 5-10, having lost three games in a row. Looking at the Seahawks, they could be looking at nine or 10 wins, and have a wild-card spot already locked up.
That would be the Rams' best key to a victory. The game will be played in the second block of Sunday games, with Arizona at San Francisco being the only other late-afternoon matchup involving NFC teams.
That means the Seahawks should have a very good idea where they stand in the playoff picture come kickoff.
I've got Seattle in the NFC playoff picture as a wild card, so I don't think they'll have much to play for against the Rams.
This is where the Rams can get their sixth win of the season, albeit a cheap one.
If the Seahawks have something to play for, watch out, because that could make this an ugly blowout loss for the Rams.
I'll go the other way and say the season ends on a bit of a high note, as the Rams triple their win total and head into 2013 with an expectation for even larger improvements.
Final Score Prediction: Rams 13, Seahawks 3
I'll stick by what I said at the beginning of the season and at the beginning of this slideshow: the Rams are a five- to six-win team this season.
Maybe the Rams can pull off the upset in Buffalo and Tampa Bay. Maybe the Rams can steal a game somewhere against the 49ers. Maybe the Rams will catch the Vikings on an off day (as Tampa Bay did last week).
Some or all of that happening could lead to a more promising final result, closer to 8-8 win-loss record.
The bottom line, however, is that this Rams team is not finishing this season with a winning record, and certainly will not be a playoff contender. Not this year, at least.
The Rams will likely finish with a top-10 pick in the NFL draft, which combined with all the other first-rounders they've collected should give the team plenty of ammunition to reload this offseason.
This season will have its share of high and low moments (many of which we've already seen), but I suspect that we'll look back on this year as the first step of many steps taken to get back to prominence in the NFL.