The St. Louis Rams entered the 2013 season full of optimism. They had every reason to believe a breakout season was imminent, but a number of hurdles slowed them down and forced the fans to sit through another disappointing season.
That's not to say there weren't exciting games and wonderful moments from the 2013 season, but overall, the team fell short of its potential.
Throughout the year, there were several key moments that truly shaped the season to make it what it is.
This is a look at those key moments—the most defining ones of 2013.
The Rams were desperate to get off to a fast start, especially with the considerable amount of preseason hype, so winning against the Arizona Cardinals in the season opener was a must.
St. Louis trailed 24-13 entering the final quarter, but a little magic from Sam Bradford saved the day.
A 14-yard pass to Tavon Austin and a 16-yard shot to Brian Quick set Bradford up for a one-yard touchdown pass to Jared Cook. Bradford followed up the touchdown by running in a two-point conversion.
Bradford led the offense to two additional field-goal drives to take the lead and secure the win.
The victory over Arizona was St. Louis' most vital win of the season. Not only was it the Rams' first victory in a season opener since 2006, but had they lost the game, the team would also have finished 0-6 in the division.
This win spared the Rams from total humiliation within their division.
Through the first four games of 2013, St. Louis had the worst rushing offense in the NFL. The abysmal ground game was averaging just 47.2 yards per game—just horrendous production.
Then, out of nowhere, a rookie named Zac Stacy—selected in the fifth round during the offseason—changed everything.
Stacy received his first start during the Rams' Week 5 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Stacy had 90 yards from scrimmage, including 78 rushing yards. It was modest production, but still a major improvement over the first four weeks.
Stacy produced a 134-yard breakout game against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 8. He went on to average 80.7 rushing yards per start and finished the year with 1,114 yards from scrimmage with eight touchdowns.
Without the arrival of Stacy, the Rams would have never produced seven wins.
The Rams got off to a rough 1-3 start thanks to soft defensive play, sloppy special teams and the lack of a run game, but one positive during that stretch was the play of Bradford.
Throughout that four-game time span, Bradford averaged 273 yards a game and threw for seven touchdowns. He was one of the few players meeting expectations at the time.
Over the next three games, with a rejuvenated defense and a reinvented run game, Bradford racked up seven more touchdowns and helped St. Louis win two of those three games. He even gave the Carolina Panthers—the No. 2 seed of the NFC—a solid fight, though the Rams lost the game.
It was during that Carolina game when Bradford snapped his knee and was lost for the year, killing St. Louis' newly found momentum.
The Rams were in a position to win their next two games against Seattle and the Tennessee Titans, but they fell short with backup Kellen Clemens under center.
Clemens eventually settled in and produced some late-season magic, but the hole was already too deep for a recovery.
Without a doubt, Bradford's injury forced the team into a midseason stumble. That one play at Carolina defined St. Louis' 2013 season more than any other play.
Early-season penalties on special teams negated a number of big plays for rookie Tavon Austin, and fans were beginning to write him off as a fantasy dud in 2013.
Then the Indianapolis Colts game happened.
Austin returned a punt 98 yards for a touchdown. To the amazement of every Rams fan in the country, there were no flags, not a single block in the back by Ray Ray Armstrong or even a holding call—just a clean touchdown...finally.
Austin added an additional 138 yards and two touchdowns as a receiver. Overall, Austin had 314 yards and three touchdowns despite having just eight touches.
This performance was vital for a number of reasons. For starters, it reminded the fanbase why Austin was worth a No. 8 overall pick. After nine weeks of so-so production, Austin finally made it known that he's a player defenses need to game-plan for.
The breakout game also reinforced the front office's decision to let Danny Amendola walk in free agency. Amendola was a key part of the offense, but Austin's domination over Indianapolis made it obvious that he has far more potential as a receiver than Amendola ever had.
Austin had other highlights throughout the year, but this game in particular made it clear that the hype is real.
St. Louis' win over the New Orleans Saints was essential not only to Robert Quinn's personal reputation around the league, but also for the Rams defense as a whole.
When Quinn sacked Drew Brees (his 15th sack of the season at the time), forced a fumble and recovered the fumble on the same play, Jeff Fisher stated that it was probably the best defensive play he's ever seen.
NFL writers, such as Sports Illustrated's Peter King, followed Fisher's lead by praising Quinn for the breathtaking play:
Quinn rushed quarterback Drew Brees from his right end position and was immediately chipped by tight end Jimmy Graham. Then left tackle Charles Brown and left guard Ben Grubbs teamed to knock Quinn to the ground. They probably thought the play was over, but Quinn crawled for about 2 yards, got up and strip-sacked Brees, all in just 2.71 seconds. Quinn capped it off by recovering the fumble.
Quinn was already part of the Defensive Player of the Year discussion, but that one play will ensure that the voters think of Quinn before casting their ballots. The play upgraded Quinn from a possibility to a favorite for the award.
But the game did more than fortify Quinn's personal stats. It proved that the St. Louis defense is talented enough to stand up to the elite offenses of the NFL.
The St. Louis defense is full of young talent (Alec Ogletree, Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, T.J. McDonald), and these types of wins are exactly what they need to build confidence and develop into big time players.
Steven Gerwel is the longest-tenured Rams Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report and serves as the Rams' game-day correspondent. You can find more of Gerwel's work by visiting his writer profile or by following him on Twitter.