DENVER • Just in case you thought you were the only one who spent most of Sunday afternoon slaloming along on this wild emotional ride between the peaks of hilarity and the depths of football depression, just in case you figured you were the only one staring at the television wondering if you were witnessing a fascinating thrill ride or a potentially devastating train wreck, allow me to take you inside the visitors' locker room of Invesco Field at Mile High.
Over there on the far wall of this bustling winner's locker room, Sam Bradford, still in uniform, shoes untied, jersey on the floor, slumped in a chair in front of his locker stall, indulging in the spoils of victory.
"Man, that was crazy," the quarterback said as he munched on a biscuit out of his postgame lunch box. "Up one minute, down the next and back up again. Crazy, man, crazy. Wow."
And then the kid flashed a big old smile from beneath that scraggly beard, took one more big bite on that biscuit and finished talking.
"But tell me again, what was the final score?"
Rams 36, Denver Broncos 33.
"Well, then, isn't that all that matters? We won, right?"
Exactly, Sam. The Rams won a road game, people. Can I get an amen?
It wasn't perfect. In fact, it was downright ulcer-inducing. But when you are a franchise that has for far too long treated life on the road like one endless misguided adventure, when you've spent the past four seasons compiling one bad road disaster after another (55 weeks without a road victory, two victories away from home since 2008 and a staggering 4-24 road record since the start of the 2007 season), who are we to quibble about style points?
This is a Rams team that is taking all the small steps in the right direction, even if they still tend to stumble occasionally at the worst possible times. But here they were at one of the NFL's great road venues — a place that used to shiver, shake, rattle and roll when the Broncos were winning AFC titles and Super Bowl trophies — and the youngsters found a way to win a game when they had to.
It was the perfect game for a team that is still trying to find its way and discover its stature in the NFL. We don't know what they are quite yet, but we do know that their season still has meaning with this important road win. The Rams are 5-6, which doesn't sound like much if you live in places like New England or New York, Chicago or New Orleans. But for a team that was 1-15 only a year ago, it's enormous. Then throw in the insane bonus that the Rams are now officially back in first place in the NFC West with five games to play, and you might as well be living on a cloud.
Now think about this, too: In a few days it will be December, and the Rams will be on top of their division standings, and they're built to stay that way when you realize their division is cluttered with deeply flawed and rapidly declining competition.
But it was also a game that provided plenty of perspective, because it wasn't remotely a complete game. Let's just say it was a fun three quarters.
Let's begin with young Mr. Bradford, who is no longer a rookie, and it's becoming difficult to remember the last time he actually did look like one. The Broncos' defensive game plan was to make sure that Steven Jackson didn't beat them (Jackson gained some of the most brutal 72 yards you'll ever see against eight and nine men in the box all day long), and they dared the kid to do it with his arm.
And guess what?
He had his first 300-yard game, completed 22 of 37 passes for three touchdowns and an eye-popping 113.3 pass efficiency rating. He threw the ball deep to all his receivers and he challenged the Broncos up the sidelines and — gasp and swoon! — up the middle of the field. Danario Alexander came off the inactive list and averaged only 23.8 yards a catch. Laurent Robinson is starting to look like a receiver who can get deep, too (14.5 yards a catch), and Danny Amendola just keeps on doing everything right (he caught four balls for 41 yards and killed the Broncos with three end-arounds for 48 yards). And Bradford used his tight ends brilliantly, too (two TD catches by Billy Bajema and one by Mike Hoomanawanui).
Then the fourth quarter started and the Rams' coaches went all fair and balanced on us, which is to say they got incredibly conservative.
Ah, yes, shall we discuss the fourth quarter? You know those final 15 minutes where Rams fan swallowed their hearts, and the Rams' coaches apparently lost all their nerve?
There was so much to like about this game until the fourth quarter. The Rams bounced back from a 10-0 deficit with the stadium beginning to feel very much like it used to when John Elway was thrilling the home folks. With all that foot stomping going on in the upper deck, I swear the press box was vibrating like we were in an earthquake. But then the offense started clicking, outscoring the Broncos 30-3, and the Rams went into the fourth quarter with a 33-13 lead. It was a thing of beauty going into the fourth quarter, and you could see the stands emptying out as disgruntled Broncos fans stopped booing and headed for the parking lot.
But then it started to happen.
It was that very familiar, queasy feeling we've felt before in Tampa and in Oakland and in San Francisco. That creeping sense that no lead is safe when the Rams are away from the Edward Jones Dome. They didn't attack. They retreated. They played it safe, just like they have done so many other times when the Rams could have put away victories in Tampa, Oakland and San Francisco.
After the game, coach Steve Spagnuolo admitted that even while basking in the thrill of victory, he couldn't understand why this team continues to struggle with its ability to be cold-blooded killers. He was smiling this time, but it was the nervous laughter of a man who knew he'd just narrowly escaped a piano falling on his head.
"I just know this," Spagnuolo said. "Going forward, if you are going to win consistently in this league, your defense has to find a way to close out football games, especially when you are up by two scores. You have to find a way to do that."
But as time goes by, it's becoming more apparent that the struggles on the road are not always a simple matter of execution by the players. Sometimes, it's also a matter of style and approach, and that is all on the coaches. Sometimes you have to stick with what got you here. Earlier in the year, it was an understandable approach because you were protecting a rookie quarterback. But Bradford isn't a rookie anymore and this team is ready to win games without racing the last few laps under the ever-present caution flag.