(Sports Network) - Despite being slated during the budding weeks of the NFL season, Sunday's matchup between the St. Louis Rams and hosting Detroit Lions didn't look like it was going to have a big impact in the standings.
While that may still be true for the winless Lions, the surprising Rams are hoping to stay in the early hunt for first place in the NFC West and win a third straight game for the first time in four seasons this weekend at Ford Field.
Given that the Rams and Lions had combined for just five wins over the previous two seasons, there didn't figure to be much hype for this meeting. However, a two-game win streak by St. Louis has the club in a three-way tie with the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks for the top spot in the NFC West. The Rams had lost 10 straight prior to their winning streak, the first for the club since claiming back-to-back games from Oct. 12-19, 2008.
"You can see the confidence around here starting to brew," said Rams running back Steven Jackson following Sunday's 20-3 home victory over the Seahawks. "We're starting to believe in what's going on. The philosophy coach [Steve Spagnuolo] has been talking about over the last two years, guys are really buying in, and I'm glad to see a lot of guys starting to grow in their own individual careers."
One player who is growing at an accelerated rate is rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. The top overall pick of the 2010 draft has thrown a touchdown pass in each of his first four NFL starts and is coming off his second career multi-touchdown game this past weekend to help St. Louis snap a 10-game skid to division-rival Seattle.
Bradford will now try to lift the Rams to their first three-game winning streak since the club closed out the 2006 campaign with three victories in a row. St. Louis has also lost four in a row on the road since a triumph at Detroit on Nov. 1, a win that served as both the Rams' lone 2009 victory and the first of Spagnuolo's head coaching career.
Things haven't been as joyful in Detroit so far this year, with the franchise off to its second 0-4 start in three seasons. Winless in 10 straight games dating back to last year, the Lions haven't won since Nov. 22 and are coming off a 28-26 setback in Green Bay that saw a Detroit rally fall just short.
The Lions trailed 28-14 early in the third quarter after Packers defensive back Charles Woodson took a Shaun Hill interception 48 yards to the end zone just 26 seconds into the second half. The game's next 12 points would come off the foot of Detroit kicker Jason Hanson in the form of four field goals, but the Lions' inability to get into the end zone in the second half cost them a victory and left head coach Jim Schwartz saying that his team is just shy of getting over the hump.
"There have been some things that we have overcome in the first four weeks, there have been some things we haven't overcome," said Schwartz. "The thing we haven't done is finish ahead on the scoreboard -- and that's a big step for this team. We have the talent, we have good schemes -- all of those different things."
This past Sunday's loss at Green Bay dropped Detroit to 0-3 in divisional play already this season.
The Rams lead the all-time regular season series with the Lions, 42-37-1, including two consecutive victories in a series that dates back to 1937. The Rams' 17-10 win at Ford Field last season was St. Louis lone win of the 2009 season, and continues to rank as the team's only road victory of the Spagnuolo era. Detroit's most recent series win was a 30-20 affair in the Motor City in 2003.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, with the Lions scoring a 31-21 home win in a 1952 NFL Conference Playoff.
Spagnuolo is 1-0 against both the Lions and Schwartz.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bradford's early-season progression has helped the Rams' rebuilding process take a huge step forward. The 22-year-old fell just 11 yards shy of his first career 300-yard passing game versus the Seahawks and was able to keep his team in the game despite getting sacked four times while being intercepted once. Bradford (944 passing yards, 6 TD, 6 INT) completed touchdown passes to wide receiver Brandon Gibson and running back Kenneth Darby, while wideouts Mark Clayton (22 receptions, 2 TD) and Danny Amendola (21 receptions) hauled in five passes each. Bradford was also helped out when Jackson (284 rushing yards, 1 TD) was declared active before the game despite a groin strain suffered the previous week. Jackson ran for 70 yards on 22 carries to pass Marshall Faulk (6,959 rushing yards) for second on the club's all-time list with 6,991 rushing yards. He also hauled in a 49-yard pass to help set up Darby's third-quarter score and remains a key part to St. Louis' 20th-ranked offense (312.3 yards per game).
While the Rams are scoring just under 20 points per game, that average could get a boost this weekend against Detroit's 27th-ranked scoring defense. The Lions are yielding 26.5 points per game, but will be looking to build off a second half in Green Bay in which they held the Packers' offense without a score. Detroit's defense also forced four turnovers against Green Bay, with cornerbacks Chris Houston (14 tackles, 1 INT) and Alphonso Smith (11 tackles, 2 INT) coming away with an interception each. Linebackers Isaiah Ekejiuba (6 tackles) and Ashlee Palmer (14 tackles) also forced a pair of fumbles. Free safety Louis Delmas (25 tackles, 2 sacks) led the team with six tackles and also recorded a sack, while defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (15 tackles) also got to the quarterback for his NFL rookie-leading third sack. Despite the individual efforts, the Lions as a team still allowed the Packers to take advantage of their 261 total yards, as Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdown passes. Detroit ranks 26th in total defense at 375.5 yards per game.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Despite the loss to the Packers, the Lions outgained the club by a 431-261 margin and got 331 passing yards out of Hill (991 passing yards, 5 TD, 7 INT). He also completed a pair of touchdown passes to Calvin Johnson (20 receptions, 3 TD), but partially offset those scores with two interceptions. Despite the injury to regular signal-caller Matthew Stafford, who suffered a right shoulder injury in Week 1, Hill has helped the Lions rank seventh in the NFL in passing (254.3 ypg). Detroit hasn't been as successful on the ground, ranking 25th with 80.3 yards per game, but did post 123 rushing yards this past weekend. Hill actually led the club with 53 yards on four carries, while rookie Jahvid Best (174 rushing yards, 21 receptions) added 50 yards on 12 carries and still leads the NFC with five total touchdowns even after getting held out of the end zone last weekend. With wide receiver Nate Burleson out due to an ankle injury suffered in Week 2, tight end Brandon Pettigrew (22 receptions) had game highs for Detroit with eight catches and 91 yards. Johnson added six receptions for 86 yards and tight end Tony Scheffler (20 receptions, 1 TD) donated six catches for 63 yards. Burleson, meanwhile, could return to action this weekend.
As St. Louis' offense continues to grow under Bradford, the defense has been making things a little easier. The Rams are holding opponents to just 13.0 points per game (4th in the NFL) despite giving up 347.0 yards per contest (23rd overall), and have limited opponents to just a field goal in five straight red-zone trips. This past weekend's 20-3 victory marked the first time St. Louis allowed three points or less since a 20-0 triumph at Oakland on Dec. 17, 2006, and the Rams set season bests by holding Seattle to 257 total yards and 64 on the ground. St. Louis has given up 17 points or less in each of its first four games for the first time since 1978 and were paced on Sunday by four sacks, including two from former Lions end James Hall (12 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles). Hall also forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Fred Robbins (10 tackles, 1 sack), while cornerback Bradley Fletcher (17 tackles) came away with an interception. Safety Craig Dahl (20 tackles), who had missed the previous game due to injury, tied cornerback Justin King (11 tackles) for the team lead with six tackles.
A lack of scoring hurt the Rams last year in terms of fantasy, and the club has only slightly improved so far this year. Jackson was kind of a surprise start last week, but ended up getting the bulk of the work on the ground. However, it was Darby who found the end zone as Jackson's scoring woes continued. Still, Jackson is a must-start for this game, while Bradford is a sleeper start given the matchup. Clayton remains the Rams leading receiver, but the Rams have been spreading the ball around so it is tough to zero in on a fantasy starter. Kicker Josh Brown has hit 70 percent of his field goals thus far, while the defense is a solid play given its recent red-zone performance and current matchup.
Much like Schwartz described his club after its most recent loss, the Lions remain just shy of getting over the hump in fantasy. Best has slowed down a bit since his fast start, but is still the undisputed No. 1 back and should be in your lineup. Johnson is also a must-play despite Hill's inconsistency, though the quarterback himself is a risk due to his turnover rate. Pettigrew is starting to emerge as a solid option at the tight end spot, and the Rams' scoring defense means that Hanson might be looking at another big game. Detroit's defense should be avoided.
The Rams come into this matchup on one of their better runs in recent years, but they are by no means blowing other teams away. Scoring is still an issue, as the team could actually be undefeated if not for issues finding the end zone. On paper, the Lions seem to be the weaker opponent, but they should have some confidence after hanging around last weekend versus the Packers. The Rams appear due for a letdown as the Lions use home-field advantage to earn their first victory of the season.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 16, Rams 13