Heading into the 2011 season, the Rams are looking to take the next step in the rebuilding process by making the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season.
The NFL has done them no favors in their quest, however.
When the schedules were released yesterday afternoon, the Rams were given the unfortunate situation of having the most difficult schedule in all of football.
The 13 opponents they face this season include the last four Super Bowl winners. Six of their first seven games are against teams many are picking to make the playoffs this season. Finally, they will have the unusual distinction of playing both the Super Bowl winner and Super Bowl loser in one season.
To summarize: There are going to be some difficult matchups for the Rams this season.
Let's review the Rams' schedule game by game and see how they'll stack up each week this season.
In their season/home opener, the Rams take on a possible Super Bowl contender, the Philadelphia Eagles.
However, it's a new season, the Rams are a team brimming with confidence and this is a game that could set a very positive tone for the rest of the season.
Rams Offense vs. Eagles Defense
The Eagles don't have a spectacular defense by any means, but they get the job done. Last year they finished 12th in total defense, 14th in pass defense and 15th in rushing defense. They don't make many mistakes, and they are fairly successful at containing opposing teams' star players.
If the Rams can mix up their playbook, they should be able to find enough success to put up points on the Eagles. Danny Amendola is a player I could see having a big game here. With Mark Clayton and Donnie Avery back, the field will be stretched out, opening up the middle for the shifty receiver.
Most Interesting Matchup: Sam Bradford vs. the Eagles Secondary
Rams Defense vs. Eagles Offense
This is where problems could really occur for the Rams. The Rams are weak at outside linebacker; therefore containment on QB Michael Vick could be a serious problem. When you mix that with the threat of LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, defensive coordinator Ken Flajole will be having nightmares.
This really is a case of pick your poison. The Eagles have so many weapons that there is no way you can shut them all down; instead, you have to rely on picking a focus. If they devote themselves to stopping Vick, forcing him to stay in the pocket and make difficult throws, the Rams could find success. Make LeSean McCoy beat you and your chances of beating the Eagles rise tremendously.
Then again, how easy will it be to simply stop Michael Vick? In the past, Vick has absolutely terrorized St. Louis.
Most Interesting Matchup: Michael Vick vs. Containment
In this Week 2 matchup, the Rams return to Monday Night Football for the first time since 2006 and take on the New York Giants.
Luckily for the Rams, they get the New York game early in the season rather than pulling a mid-December game. Therefore, weather shouldn't play much of a factor in this game at all.
Watching Steve Spagnuolo take on his former employer should be interesting, as both teams will be looking to pick up a big confidence-boosting win on national television early on in the season. Interesting matchups will be everywhere in this contest.
Rams Offense vs. Giants Defense
The Giants are one of the many opponents the Rams will play this season that are solid against the passing game. Finishing ninth in the league, the Giants allowed just 210 yards through the air.
Against the rush the Giants were even better, allowing just 101 yards per game, good enough for eighth in football.
Their very large, physical defensive line, led by Justin Tuck, tends to wreak havoc against the best offensive lines, so the Rams will most definitely have their hands full.
Most Interesting Matchup: Offensive Line vs. Defensive Line
Rams Defense vs. Giants Offense
The Giants' running back duo of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw was a load for opposing teams last season, as they averaged 137 yards per game on the ground. Having two above-average running backs gave teams fits for the entire duration of the game, usually leading to a worn-down defense by the end.
The Rams are going to have to rely on their defensive line having a big game if they want to contain the duo. If they can get a big push up front, they might be able to slow down the Giants early and often.
Throwing the ball is also something the Giants do well. Ranked 10th in the league, Eli Manning averaged over 240 yards per game and made use of his many weapons. Kevin Boss, Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and Steve Smith are all deadly targets in the receiving game for them.
The one weakness the Giants did have, though, was that they were very turnover-prone, losing 17 fumbles and throwing 25 interceptions throughout the year. If the Rams can cause turnovers, they can win this football game—it's as simple as that.
Most Interesting Matchup: James Laurinaitis vs. Ahmad Bradshaw
Here in Week 3 the Rams will stay at home to face the always competitive Baltimore Ravens.
I'm calling a defensive showdown in this one. I'm also calling that this is the first game where Sam Bradford steps up and carries the Rams to a victory.
Rams Offense vs. Ravens Defense
Whenever I think of the Ravens defense, I think of something said by Ivory Christian in the film Friday Night Lights:
Coach Gaines: What's it like out there Ivory?
Ivory Christian: They're fast, they're big, they're dirty...plus they're fast.
Coach Gaines: You said that already.
First off, let me say I'm not calling the Baltimore Ravens dirty—they're more brutal than dirty. With a defense bolstered by Ray Lewis, arguably the best linebacker to ever play the game, the Ravens are going to shut down almost every running back they face. As much as I hate to say it, I don't believe Steven Jackson will be an exception in this game.
If they're going to win this game, Sam Bradford will have to lead them to a victory. It is Sam Bradford that is going to have to expose the only weak spot the Ravens had last year—the secondary. It is Sam Bradford who will have to keep Ed Reed from singlehandedly turning the game around with a big play, and it will be Sam Bradford who will be leading the two-minute drill when the Rams find themselves a field goal away from an unlikely victory.
Most Interesting Matchup: Ed Reed vs. Danny Amendola
Rams Defense vs. Ravens Offense
This is a very manageable game for the Rams defense. Joe Flacco is a solid game manager, but he isn't going to light up the stat sheet. Ray Rice is a star in the making, but he at times struggled last season against teams not named the Broncos or Saints.
The main focus the Rams will have in this game is containing Rice and forcing Flacco to beat them. Unless one of these two quarterbacks has a huge game, this game has all the signs of a defensive battle.
Most Interesting Matchup: Anquan Boldin vs. Ron Bartell
Week 4 will be the first time all season the Rams will be the favorites heading into a game.
It's not that Washington is completely dreadful; the Rams just always seem to play them well. That, mixed with the game being in St. Louis and the Redskins being...well, dreadful, will give the Rams the upper hand.
This game will also mark O.J. Atogwe's return to St. Louis. Expect him to be greeted warmly by the fans.
Rams Offense vs. Redskins Defense
The Rams could have a big offensive day here. Last season the Rams started out in an offensive funk, struggling to score points and looking like it was going to be a while before Bradford had a complete grasp of the system. Then they traveled to Washington and dropped 30 points on the Redskins.
The Redskins were a mess on defense all last year, and due to the lockout, they may not have any time to make it better. The offensive line holds an advantage and should get plenty of push for Jackson, and the receivers should cause problems in their Atogwe-led secondary.
Most Interesting Matchup: O.J. Atogwe vs. the Rams
Rams Defense vs. Redskins Offense
Once again the Rams hold an advantage here. First of all, there is no telling who will be under center for the Redskins in this game. It could be Donovan McNabb, but trade rumors have been swirling lately. Rex Grossman is a possibility, but Grossman has been consistently inconsistent ever since he came into the league. Perhaps they'll draft a quarterback and have him start against the Rams.
The ground game is a different story. Last season Ryan Torain emerged as a very effective running back, rushing for over 700 yards in just 10 games. Backup Keiland Williams also showed flashes of potential, rushing for 261 yards and three touchdowns in limited time last season.
The Rams will focus on shutting down Torain in this one. If they can do that, it is going to be tough for the Redskins to win this one.
Most Interesting Matchup: Ryan Torain vs. James Laurinaitis
Ah, the bye week, where players book a weekend at their favorite spa and sleep in until 10.
Last year, Spagnuolo gave them most of the week off. Relax, Rams—you're going to need it next week when you take on the defending Super Bowl champs.
Most Interesting Matchup: pool or hot tub?
Nothing can measure how far you've come quite like playing the defending Super Bowl champions. The Rams did it last year and were crushed by the New Orleans Saints, 31-13.
Here is hoping this year the Rams find themselves in a more manageable game.
Rams Offense vs. Packers Defense
This is going to be a brutal matchup for the Rams. The Packers don't appear to have any holes in their defense, and if they do, there aren't many.
With B.J. Raji manning the defensive line, Clay Matthews patrolling the linebackers and Nick Collins lurking in the secondary, the defense really is a classic case of pick your poison.
At times they appeared vulnerable against the run, finishing 18th in football in run defense. Against the pass, however, they were on absolute shutdown, allowing less than 200 passing yards a game and finishing fifth in football.
If the Rams are going to win this game, it is going to take a big game from Steven Jackson and a mistake-free performance from Sam Bradford. Sam won't be expected to do too much in Green Bay, but if he can manage to control the tempo and keep the Rams on the field, he should be fine.
Most Interesting Matchup: Steven Jackson vs. Clay Matthews
Rams Defense vs. Packers Offense
We all watched the Super Bowl; therefore we are all aware of what the Packers are capable of doing on offense. How scary is it, though, that they completely dominated the football world offensively without the aid of their star running back Ryan Grant and solid tight end Jermichael Finley?
With Grant healthy, along with the emergence of RB James Starks, the Packers add a very legitimate running game to go along with their elite passing game.
Aaron Rodgers will cause problems for an O.J. Atogwe-less secondary due to his vast array of weapons.
Most Interesting Matchup: Ron Bartell vs. Greg Jennings
When the Rams travel to Dallas, they'll be taking on a Cowboy team that is expected to once again be a contender in the NFC East.
Rams Offense vs. Cowboys Defense
Last year the Dallas Cowboys struggled on defense, but they have all the pieces to cause the Rams problems. DeMarcus Ware is arguably the best pass rusher in football, and their secondary should be much improved under new head coach Jason Garrett. They have a dangerous linebacker corps of Keith Brooking and Bradie James. Igor Olshansky will also present problems up front.
Neither team really holds much of an edge in this matchup, however. The Rams at this point are an average NFL offense, and the Cowboys are a slightly above-average NFL defense.
Most Interesting Matchup: Offensive Line vs. DeMarcus Ware
Rams Defense vs. Cowboys Offense
The Rams may have a disadvantage here because of their lack of depth at safety. The Cowboys love to air it out with Tony Romo. His arsenal of weapons consists of Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Roy Williams and Martellus Bennett.
Their running attack consisting of Felix Jones, Marion Barber, and Tashard Choice also will be difficult to slow. However, the front seven should be able to hold up fine, but the secondary is really a cause for concern. Bradley Fletcher will be okay covering Williams, but Bartell will have trouble on Miles, and the safeties will most likely struggle against the tight ends.
If the Rams don't want to get themselves into a shootout, they better step up in the secondary.
Most Interesting Matchup: Ron Bartell vs. Austin Miles
When the Rams return home to host the Saints, they'll be looking to avenge last season's embarrassing 31-13 loss. This game will also feature the third team the Rams will play this season that has won a Super Bowl in the last four seasons.
Rams Offense vs. Saints Defense
This matchup could actually bode well for the Rams. The Saints weren't impressive at all last season on defense, and it doesn't appear they'll be making any significant strides heading into 2011.
The secondary struggled to shut anyone down, and if Bradford can open things up, Jackson will have plenty of space to run around. It all comes down to how Josh McDaniels attacks the Saints through the air and how successful he can be in stretching the field.
Most Interesting Matchup: Josh McDaniels' Game Plan vs. the Saints Defense
Rams Defense vs. Saints Offense
This will not be pretty, I can guarantee that.
Drew Brees is loaded with receivers, many of whom will cause matchup problems in the secondary. If that isn't bad enough, Chris Ivory established himself as a legitimate threat in the running game along with Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas.
With all the weapons the Saints have along with St. Louis' depleted secondary, the Rams are going to have to step up in every facet of the game if they want to win this one.
Most Interesting Matchup: Rams Safeties vs. Saints Slot Receivers
In Week 9 the Rams finally will play an NFC West opponent, and they should manage to leave this game with a victory.
Rams Offense vs. Cardinals Defense
The Arizona Cardinals were one of the worst defenses in football during 2010. Allowing 27.1 PPG, the Cardinals really struggled to stop anyone last year, except the Rams. In their two meetings last year, the Rams averaged a mere 16 points as the teams split the season series.
That being said, one of those games featured Sam Bradford in his first official NFL game, and the other came with the Rams incredibly thin at receiver. This year they should fare a little better.
Everyone in the Cardinals secondary not named Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie struggled last season, and their front seven struggled to shut down the run. Steven Jackson, who historically struggles against the Cardinals, averaged 90 yards per game last season against them.
With McDaniels bringing in a far more wide-open offense, expect some success on offense here.
Most Interesting Matchup: Mark Clayton vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Rams Defense vs. Cardinals Offense
Who will be under center for the Cardinals in this game is anyone's guess. Last year Arizona rotated through three quarterbacks, all of whom struggled. John Skelton and Max Hall weren't ready to be starters, and Derek Anderson was incredibly inconsistent and ineffective throughout the season. If no one can successfully pass the ball, having big-play receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald isn't as meaningful.
Beanie Wells is yet to establish himself as a capable running back for the Cardinals, and Tim Hightower appears to be their starter going forward. Hightower, while a very promising back, won't be as effective as possible unless they establish a passing game to go along with it.
The Rams were fine against this offense last season and should be fine going forward.
Most Interesting Matchup: Ron Bartell vs. Larry Fitzgerald
In one of the more interesting matchups of the Rams' season, this game will showcase two teams who appear to be on the upswing after a few rough seasons.
The contest will feature the Browns' Colt McCoy and the Rams' Sam Bradford, two sophomore quarterbacks who looked like future stars in their rookie seasons, and star running backs Steven Jackson and Peyton Hillis.
Rams Offense vs. Browns Defense
The Rams will have a good opportunity to put points on the board next season against the Browns. In 2010, Cleveland finished 22nd overall (350.1 YPG) in total defense, badly struggling to contain the run in most of their games.
With the Browns allowing 130 rushing yards per game, expect the Rams to give Steven Jackson a workout.
Although they do struggle at times, defending the pass is the Browns' greatest strength on defense. First-round draft pick Joe Haden emerged as a solid corner that should stick nicely to Mark Clayton all game. Where the Rams could have success is using Donnie Avery as a burner and getting Danny Amendola matched up against the Browns' mediocre safeties.
Most Interesting Matchup: Mark Clayton vs. Joe Haden
Rams Defense vs. Browns Offense
I can almost guarantee right now that the Rams' defensive game plan will revolve around finding a way to stop Peyton Hillis.
Coming over from Denver in the 2010 offseason, Hillis was the epitome of a breakout player, piling up 1,177 rushing yards, 477 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. In 2011, he will be expected to make an even bigger impact. The Rams' job will be to not let that happen for at least one Sunday.
The Browns are also led by Colt McCoy and Joshua Cribbs on offense. McCoy showed a nice ability to be a game manager, and his ultra-accurate passing has translated nicely to the NFL. Cribbs is a constant threat to make a play whenever he gets his hands on the ball and should get plenty of touches in the game as well.
Most Interesting Matchup: Peyton Hillis vs. Entire Rams Defense
This is the most exciting Rams game up to this point.
Not only have the Seahawks developed into our main rival, but the Rams have been wanting another shot at Seattle ever since the last seconds ticked away at the end of the 2010 season: a loss that sent the Rams home and the Seahawks to a playoff date with the Saints.
When the Rams come out for this one, they'll be about as pumped up as you can be.
Rams Offense vs. Seahawks Defense
The Rams aren't going to light up the Seahawks defense. Seattle knows the roster too well, and its defense is too similar skill-wise to allow such a thing.
That being said, the Rams showed the ability to consistently move the ball against the 'Hawks in the team's first meeting, a 20-3 win in St. Louis.
The Rams are going to have to put together a few solid drives and rely on the leg of Josh Brown to build up points in this one. The occasional touchdown would be preferred.
Most Interesting Matchup: Sam Bradford vs. Earl Thomas
Rams Defense vs. Seahawks Offense
Matt Hasselbeck is a better quarterback than Charlie Whitehurst. That is a fact. When Hasselbeck started against the Rams, the Seahawks scored three points. When Whitehurst started against the Rams, the Seahawks beat the Rams and eliminated them from playoff contention.
Football can make little sense at times.
My guess is Hasselbeck will be starting when this game rolls around, but in the grand scheme of things it won't really matter much. Where the difference will be made is in the ground game.
Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett and Leon Washington are all very dangerous backs that could hurt the Rams in different ways. Their focus will be containing the ground game and keeping the Seahawks from picking up easy first downs.
One of the biggest ways the Seahawks hurt the Rams last season was by picking up five- and six-yard runs on first down, setting up very manageable distances for second and third down. When the Rams beat them in St. Louis, this wasn't happening. Containing the run will be everything in this game.
Most Interesting Matchup: Rams Front Four vs. Seahawks O-line
The Rams stay at home for the second straight week to host the Cardinals.
It will be the second time in four weeks that these two teams meet, and you should see much of the same.
Rams Offense vs. Cardinals Defense
See Week 9
Rams Defense vs. Cardinals Offense
See Week 9
In Week 13 the Rams travel to California for their first matchup of the season with the 49ers.
It will be the first time they face each other in the Jim Harbaugh era, and it should be a very physical game featuring plenty of defense.
Rams Offense vs. 49ers Defense
The 49ers' front seven is incredible. Patrick Willis is in my opinion the best linebacker in football, and their defensive line will cause a fit for the Rams' offensive line.
The one place the Rams can expose the 49ers is in the secondary. The 49ers struggled to slow Sam Bradford last season, as the rookie had two of his best games against them. If Bradford can continue his success against the red and gold, the Rams could put up a very respectable number of points.
Most Intriguing Matchup: Patrick Willis vs. Steven Jackson
Rams Defense vs. 49ers Offense
The only problem here that really exists is Frank Gore. The Rams have struggled against Gore in the past, and those struggles will most likely continue.
At quarterback the 49ers are a mess, but Harbaugh has shown himself to be an adequate QB coach with the success of Andrew Luck. Whether Alex Smith or someone else is under center at this point in the season is anybody's guess, but my money would be on the Rams being able to handle it.
Most Intriguing Matchup: Rams Front Seven vs. Frank Gore
In Week 14 the Rams head to Seattle for a huge game.
First off, the game will be on Monday Night Football and feature an intense rivalry.
Secondly, at this point in the season, given that it's a divisional game, this could go a long way in deciding who wins the NFC West.
Rams Offense vs. Seahawks Defense
See Week 11
Rams Defense vs. Seahawks Offense
See Week 11
The Rams head home for a matchup with the troubled Bengals in Week 15.
The Bengals have several questions going into this season, and hopefully for them they'll have that all sorted out by now.
Rams Offense vs. Bengals Defense
The Cincinnati Bengals defense held up well last season. They're not particularly strong against the run or the pass, but they do a good enough job against both to keep themselves in the game.
Chances are the Rams aren't going to explode on offense, but they do have the ability to beat this defense. This game would be a classic case of using Steven Jackson a copious amount early to wear down the defense, keep the chains moving and keep the Bengals offense off of the field. If this is done properly, the passing game will open up for Bradford, and he should be increasingly effective as the game goes on.
This is a game where coming out trying to air out the ball won't work, and hopefully McDaniels realizes that.
Most Interesting Matchup: McDaniels Game Plan vs. Bengals Defense
Rams Defense vs. Bengals Offense
There is no telling who the Bengals quarterback will be when this game is played. Carson Palmer has made it clear that he never wants to wear the stripes again, and the Bengals' backups consist of Dan LeFevour and Jordan Palmer, neither of whom is capable of posing a threat to an NFL defense.
Cedric Benson has struggled with his consistency, but when he is on he is a very dangerous back. Expect the Rams to focus on containing Benson in this game and forcing the Bengals to beat them through the air.
Most Interesting Matchup: Bengals QB vs. Rams Secondary
Rams Offense vs. Steelers Defense
In 2010 the Steelers boasted one of the NFL's best defenses, and that shouldn't change at all in 2011. Led by safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison, the defensive unit is always difficult to crack, even for the best offenses.
Allowing a measly 276.8 YPG (214.1 passing YPG, 62.7 rushing YPG), the Steelers defense will really be a test of the progress that Josh McDaniels' offense has made.
Most Interesting Matchup: Steven Jackson vs. Steelers' Run Defense
Rams Defense vs. Steelers Offense
The Steelers were 14th in the league last season in total offense, using a formidable mix of the Ben Roethlisberger-led passing game and the emergence of Rashard Mendenhall to wreak havoc on defenses.
The Rams defense will have their hands full containing athletes such as Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Heath Miller and others. This could be a game where a lack of a quality safety could really damage the Rams. Wallace is a constant threat to burn the secondary deep, collecting seven 100-yard receiving games last season.
Most Interesting Matchup: Mike Wallace vs. the Rams' Secondary
For the season finale, the Rams return home to play the 49ers in a game that could decide the winner of the NFC West.
Last season the Rams didn't fare too well in their final stand. Here's hoping they beat the tar out of the 49ers.
Rams Offense vs. 49ers Defense
See Week 13
Rams Defense vs. 49ers Offense
See Week 13
So what do you think of the 2011 schedule?
Are you still as confident about the Rams heading into the season knowing that on paper they have the toughest schedule in football?
Leave a comment and let's get a discussion going!