NFL Preview - St. Louis (5-6-1) at Buffalo (5-7)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The St. Louis Rams' second winning streak of the season has the club thinking it could make a run at a playoff spot.
The Rams look to continue that push on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills hoping for their first three-game winning streak in six seasons.
St. Louis has won consecutive games for the first time since a pair of home wins over the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 30 and Oct. 4. The Rams snapped a five-game winless drought (0-4-1) with a road win at Arizona on Nov. 25 before avenging a Week 10 tie with the San Francisco 49ers with a 16-13 overtime win over the Niners this past Sunday.
Much like the earlier tilt in San Francisco, which ended in a 24-24 deadlock, both kickers missed field goal attempts in overtime before Greg Zuerlein connected on a 54-yard try with 26 seconds left in the extra frame. The rookie kicker had forced overtime with a field goal conversion from 53 yards out as time expired in the fourth.
The victory kept St. Louis' hopes of a wild card spot alive and it is no coincidence that both of its winning streaks this season have come at the expense of fellow NFC West residents. The Rams are 4-0-1 against their division this season and that could help them in their chase of the Seattle Seahawks, who currently hold the second of two wild card spots in the conference.
"You build yourself to compete in the division. We still have a lot of work ahead. It's good that guys have confidence against good division opponents," noted St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher.
Quarterback Sam Bradford threw for 221 yards, running back Steven Jackson ran for just 48 yards on 21 carries but caught another five passes for 69 yards and wide receiver Chris Givens hauled in a game-high 11 passes.
In addition to Zuerlein, the defense accounted for the rest of the scoring with a safety and two-yard fumble return for a score by cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
St. Louis will try to continue its playoff push by notching its longest winning streak since ending the 2006 campaign with three victories in a row, but can't look past a Buffalo squad also hoping to reach the postseason.
The 5-7 Bills sit two games out of a wild card spot following a 34-18 victory on Sunday over the Jacksonville Jaguars, just Buffalo's second win in six games.
The Bills, though, turned in a well-rounded performance, getting a season-high 232 yards rushing, three total touchdowns from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and an excellent effort from a defense that limited the Jaguars to 236 net yards of offense.
"Some good things happened, all around. That's why we won the ballgame," said Buffalo coach Chan Gailey.
Fitzpatrick, a former Rams draft pick, completed only 9-of-17 pass attempts for 112 yards in sloppy conditions, but threw touchdown passes to Stevie Johnson and Scott Chandler in addition to logging his first rushing touchdown since Nov. 29, 2009.
Fred Jackson ran for a season-high 109 yards on 25 carries and C.J. Spiller got the ball an additional 14 times on the ground, posting 77 yards and a score.
Buffalo's defense, meanwhile, had four sacks and held Jacksonville to just 50 yards rushing.
The Bills lead the all-time series with the Rams 6-4 and have won each of the past two encounters. They logged a road victory in the most recent meeting in St. Louis during the 2008 season and haven't hosted the Rams since a 37-17 victory in 2004.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Rams did not force a turnover during their five-game winless stretch, but have been turning opponent mistakes into points during their consecutive wins.
Jenkins had two of four St. Louis interceptions in the win over the Cardinals and returned both for touchdowns. Fisher, though, wanted some fumbles to start going his team's way and the rookie corner obliged by pouncing on a 49er loose ball and taking it the short distance to the end zone.
Jenkins also teamed with linebacker James Laurinaitis to force an intentional grounding call on San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the end zone that resulted in a safety.
St. Louis has a plus-4 turnover differential over its winning streak and is now at minus-2 for the season.
Of course, the Rams would love for their offense to put up more points this weekend and rank just 28th in the NFL with 18.4 points per game. The continued growth of first-year wideout Givens could pad that number.
Givens began the season as a one-dimensional deep threat, but was a target of Bradford's last weekend at any spot on the field. He turned his career-high 11 catches into 92 yards and made a big six-yard catch in overtime on third down to move the chains.
"He's come a long way and I've said it every week, I think he's gotten better each week. I think he showed it today," Bradford noted after Sunday's win.
The Bills still need to focus on Givens down the field as he is averaging 16.9 yards per catch this season. He becomes even more dangerous if Danny Amendola can play through a foot injury that held him out of the Niners game.
The Rams' offense has also benefited from having Zuerlein as a safety net. The kicker is 7-for-11 from 50 yards or deeper this season and is one successful kick shy from that distance in matching Morten Anderson and Jason Hanson for the NFL single-season record.
The Bills are hoping to keep their balance going this weekend. They rank fourth in the NFL with 147.9 rushing yards per game and just 26th through the air (198.5 YPG), but Fitzgerald still made the most of his chances last weekend.
Fred Jackson came into the season with a contract extension, but injuries have slowed him down and Spiller has filled in very well. The latter leads the Bills with 907 yards on 137 rush attempts with five touchdowns, while Jackson has 423 yards on 106 carries with three scores.
Both have also helped Fitzpatrick in the passing game with a combined 62 receptions and having both healthy will be key for any type of playoff push.
"All I can do is go out and make plays when my number is called," said Fred Jackson, who is coming off his first 100-yard rushing game since last November. "You know things aren't always going to go the way we wanted them too. It's an up and down game. So hopefully we can just keep making plays like we did today and take all the other things out of it."
Buffalo's run defense is starting to round into form. Though the club still ranks 30th in the league in that department, the Bills have held an opponent under 90 yards rushing in three straight games for the first time since Nov. 30-Dec. 14, 2003.
Gailey's club will have some injuries to overcome this weekend as center Eric Wood is expected to miss at least two weeks -- and possibly the rest of the season -- due to a partially-torn MCL, while starting right guard Chris Hairston could also miss this game with a right foot ailment.
Johnson, who left the win over the Jaguars with a tight hamstring, said he expects to play in this game. He'll try to add to his team-leading 55 receptions and 705 yards.
The Rams haven't been setting the world on fire with their offense and may struggle getting into their groove against a Bills defense that is starting to put it together.
Buffalo's effort versus Jacksonville, in which it got to the quarterback and knocked the ball loose on a number of occasions, is what it envisioned when the club signed defensive end Mario Williams and Rams veteran Steven Jackson could be headed for a long day versus this clicking unit.
"We have got some guys running downhill and everybody has been in the right spot," said Gailey. "We have got guys playing the cutback. We have got guys filling the front side hole. Everybody is being a lot more consistent about filling the correct gap. If I had to say there is one thing, that is the one thing. We are playing a lot more physical now than we were a month and a half ago."
That will put the pressure on Bradford and a step forward in his chemistry with Givens would go a long way in opening up the field for the Bills defense, which ranks 13th against the pass.
St. Louis' steady defense bailed the offense out last weekend but the Rams might not get as lucky in this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bills 23, Rams 17
12/06 12:56:30 ET