While not eliminated from playoff contention, the St. Louis Rams are very close to seeing their postseason hopes end - something that's already happened for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Rams look to get back on track after a damaging loss with their fourth win in five games when they visit the sinking Bucs on Sunday.
A three-game win streak bolstered St. Louis' chances to end an eight-year postseason drought, but the Rams couldn't continue their late roll last week, falling 36-22 to Minnesota.
With four 8-6 teams also contending for the final NFC playoff berth, the Rams' chances are extremely faint, and St. Louis (6-7-1) may be relegated to trying to finish above .500 for the first time since 2003.
"We're going to try to get better these next few weeks," quarterback Sam Bradford said. "Win two games and build on that going into next year."
Bradford threw for a career-high 377 yards and three touchdowns last week, and he'll next face a Tampa Bay team allowing a league-worst 310.6 passing yards per game.
With another 259 yards through the air, Bradford will surpass his career-best total of 3,512, set in his rookie year of 2010. He also needs one touchdown to establish a career high with 19, which would break the mark set in his first season.
Rams running back Steven Jackson, who became the 27th player to run for 10,000 career yards last week, needs 92 to surpass 1,000 for the eighth consecutive season and extend his franchise record.
Jackson won't have guard Harvey Dahl to help him to do so, as Dahl tore his left bicep and was expected to undergo surgery.
Jackson will also be facing the top-ranked run defense in the NFL, as Tampa Bay is giving up 83.3 yards per game. The Bucs, however, allowed 149 on the ground in a 41-0 loss to New Orleans last week.
Josh Freeman continued his difficult December with a season-high four interceptions and a lost fumble. The fourth-year pro has completed 48.3 percent of his passes in the three games this month while posting a passer rating of 60.8.
"I've got to do a better job,'' he said.
Freeman had a 94.3 rating in the first 11 contests while completing 57.0 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
A four-game win streak Oct. 25-Nov. 18 had Tampa Bay (6-8) looking poised to end a five-year playoff drought, but the ensuing four-game slide resulted in an end to the club's postseason chances last week.
"After every game we talk about just sticking together as a team," Freeman said. "I think this is going to be a great time for our team to come together. We had a rough one. We dropped the ball, but now how do we respond to adversity?
"... It's times like these when you really forge the nucleus of your team."
With 3,471 yards, Freeman needs 122 to set a career high and 341 to surpass Brad Johnson's single-season team record set in 2003.
The Buccaneers, though, might be more focused on taking advantage of the Rams' run defense.
St. Louis has given up an average of 136.4 rushing yards in the past seven games and allowed league leader Adrian Peterson run for a season-high 212 last week, including an 82-yard touchdown sprint.
That could give Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin a good opportunity to get back on track. Martin, fifth in the league with 1,250 yards, was held to a season-low 16 last week.
The Bucs have won five of the last six meetings with the Rams. Freeman's 1-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left gave Tampa Bay an 18-17 victory in the most recent one Oct. 24, 2010, at Raymond James Stadium.
Jackson ran for 110 yards in that game and has totaled 225 in his last two contests against Tampa Bay.
The Bucs have won all four matchups in Tampa since the Rams moved to St. Louis and have a five-game home win streak against the franchise.
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