ST. LOUIS (AP)—To get to a meaningful game in January, the St. Louis Rams turned to a rookie who never has played in one.
Desperately needing a win to stay in the NFC playoff picture, the Rams played like it, especially running back Steven Jackson. His best pro performance Monday night keyed a 20-7 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, who just wanted to get out of town healthy.
Jackson rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown before he bruised his right knee in the fourth quarter. That effort revitalized the offense and made next Sunday’s home game with the New York Jets significant.
“It gives us life,” Jackson said. “We know we have a must-win game next week and coming out and winning on Monday night was big for us.”
The game didn’t matter to the Eagles (13-2), who saw a six-game winning streak end. They already own home-field advantage in the NFC and played it safe — running back Brian Westbrook, their prime offensive threat with star wideout Terrell Owens sidelined, was scratched, along with starting tackle Tra Thomas. Donovan McNabb played one series, when the Eagles got their only points.
Their reserves were no match for a Rams squad with its season on the line.
“At this point it doesn’t make any difference to me,” Rams coach Mike Martz said. “If they are going to play those guys we should dominate them.”
Philadelphia gained a mere 155 yards against a defense ranked 24th. And 63 of those yards came on the McNabb-led drive.
“We wanted to get the No. 2 guys and the guys who don’t star some work, just in case in the playoffs they have to come in and step up,” said wide receiver Freddie Mitchell, who had a 7-yard TD reception.
If the Rams (7-8) beat the Jets on Sunday and Seattle loses to Atlanta, St. Louis will win the NFC West. If the Seahawks win and take the division, St. Louis can make the playoffs by winning and having Minnesota lose at Washington, or by Carolina and New Orleans tying.
A win for the Jets would put them into the AFC playoffs.
“After all the drama we’ve been through this year, to be in position to potentially get into the playoffs, how awesome is that?” Martz said. “We will show up next week and lay it all out there.”
Jackson did not play in the Rams’ last two games. He missed one game with a bruised knee and did not get on the field last week despite being healthy. The Rams totaled 88 yards rushing in those two losses that dropped them to the edge of elimination. But the overall offense was effective against Philadelphia’s second-string defense, gaining 419 yards.
Also returning was quarterback Marc Bulger, whose right shoulder kept him out of those last two losses. Bulger was sharp enough, going 20-for-27 for 233 yards, and hit Isaac Bruce for a 7-yard touchdown.
Martz revealed after the game that Bulger has been playing hurt since the season opener.
“At least we’re not completely out of it,” Bulger said of the playoffs scenarios. “Teams with eight losses usually are. It’s nice having something to play for.”
In a stark departure from his passing persona, Martz—perhaps sensing it would be Jackson’s night—called 10 running plays on the opening drive that covered 73 yards. Jackson ran for 46 yards and Marshall Faulk for 27 on the march. Jackson surged in from the 5 to put the Rams ahead.
Jackson, who was a first-round pick and the first running back chosen, also had a 43-yard run in the second period on a drive that ended with Jeff Wilkins missing a 44-yard field goal.
“He looks like a great runner to me,” Martz said of Jackson. “That first series he is running through them and around them every which way you can. When you have a guy playing like that—spectacular.”
Wilkins made a 28-yarder for a 10-7 halftime lead. He later added a 29-yarder.
Mitchell’s first-quarter touchdown catch was his first of the season, and the Eagles will be looking for more of that with Owens sidelined.
“It’s definitely different,” Mitchell said of playing without T.O. “He definitely has the presence and he definitely makes the defense change their scheme. We’ve just got to go out there like we’ve done the last three years and just hit them in the mouth.”
That series was it for McNabb as the Eagles remained in their protective mode with nothing to gain from the game. They have a league-high nine Pro Bowlers, and most of them barely played.
The Eagles got a scare in the first half when cornerbacks Lito Sheppard, a Pro Bowler, and Dexter Wynn collided chasing a pass by Wilkins on a fake punt. Both lay on the ground for several minutes before walking off, and Sheppard stayed out with a quadriceps contusion. Rookie fullback Thomas Tapeh was carted off with 28 seconds remaining with a dislocated hip.
“We knew we weren’t going to play the whole game, but we wanted to do our best,” Sheppard said of the regulars.
In McNabb’s stead, Koy Detmer was dismal, going 1-for-6 for 5 yards before third-stringer Jeff Blake came on in the fourth quarter. That gave the night the feel of an August preseason game for the Eagles, even while the Rams were trying to get to a significant January contest.
^Notes: The Rams have won 12 straight December home games. … Martz blasted the Edward Jones Dome turf: “That surface really needs to be changed; it’s a shame to have all these great athletes playing on that hard surface. It’s the worst one in the league.” … In addition to Sheppard and Tapeh, Philadelphia lost tight end Chad Lewis with a triceps strain. Rams tight end Cam Cleeland sustained a concussion. … Faulk, Bruce and Torry Holt wore tiny No. 92 decals in honor of Reggie White, who died Sunday. … Faulk did not have a reception, ending the longest active streak in the league at 158 games.