- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2004

It’s a big day for NFC divisional rivalries, nowhere more so than in St. Louis where West-leading Seattle (5-3) is out to pay back the Rams (4-4) for rallying from a 27-10 fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Seahawks in overtime last month.

The Seahawks, who likely will be without ex-Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom (knee), have won two straight since a three-game skid. Running back Shaun Alexander gained 355 yards the last two weeks to move within 13 yards of the league lead and put himself on pace for team records of 1,758 yards and 24 touchdowns. Seattle is the only team ranked in the top 10 in yards and points and yards and points allowed.

After consecutive losses, the Rams are heading in the opposite direction. The once-powerhouse offense is averaging just 22 points and has allowed 24 sacks. Only four teams yield more rushing yards, a scary prospect against Alexander, who ran for 150 on them the last time.

Not only can’t the Rams stop the run, they’ve stopped forcing turnovers. They have just seven compared to 20 at midseason in 2003.

“We’re not getting enough people on the ballcarrier,” coach Mike Martz lamented. “We’re not getting off blocks and getting to the ball and getting the ball out. There comes a time when some of these guys have just got to step up and make plays. I’m upset. We’ve got some guys that we’re counting on for that — they’ve got to step up.”

Vikings-Packers — The story line is similar in Minnesota. The visiting Vikings (5-3) have lost two straight and are on a short week while the Packers (4-4) reeled off three in a row before last week’s bye to get back in the NFC North hunt. Last year Minnesota was 6-0 and Green Bay was 3-4 before the Packers stormed back to win the division.

“Don’t be surprised if we end up with the second-best [NFC] record [behind 7-1 Philadelphia],” said Packers safety Darren Sharper. “I know we have the team to get to the Super Bowl.”

No team has gotten that far after a 1-4 start, but Pittsburgh (1976) and Tennessee (2002) reached conference championship games. And Green Bay is 27-9 after October in coach Mike Sherman’s five seasons.

Minnesota will be without All-Pro receiver Randy Moss, out for a second week with a partially torn hamstring. Coach Mike Tice, whose contract is expiring, is getting plenty of heat for not sitting the hobbling Moss the two previous games and for a clock management blunder in last Monday’s 31-28 loss at Indianapolis.

Buccaneers-Falcons — Atlanta (6-2) should be sitting pretty with a three-game lead in the NFC South, but the Falcons’ defense has allowed 84 points the past two games. Meanwhile, the Bucs (3-5) are surging after an 0-4 start, winning with unusually potent offense (34 points last week against Kansas City) and typically stingy defense (allowing Chicago just seven points the previous week).

Running back Michael Pittman, suspended for the first three weeks, has gained 100 yards in consecutive games for the first time in his career, and quarterback Brian Griese, Tampa Bay’s third starter this year, is on fire (6-1 touchdown/interception ratio, 106.9 rating). And no defense has done a better job of controlling Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick than Tampa Bay’s although the Bucs are just 16th against the run while the Falcons boast the third-ranked ground game.

If the Falcons win, they’ll just about eliminate the Bucs from contention, which would be sweet revenge for general manager Rich McKay, who held that post in Tampa Bay for eight-plus years before being forced out by Bucs coach Jon Gruden last December.

“Rich isn’t playing in the game, and I’m not either,” Gruden said. “It was something very sensitive and always will be. He was a great general manager here … but he isn’t here, he’s in Atlanta. It’s a big game for them and us. The players will decide the outcome. [The past] has no bearing in my opinion.”

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