Rams the team no one wants to play

The end of the NFL season can be like the climax of a horror film. Many postseason contenders look at their December schedule, see an opponent and say: ''Not Them!''

That team to avoid this year is St. Louis.

Sure, the Rams (6-7) have a minuscule chance to still make the playoffs, even though they'd probably run away with the NFC South. Naturally, making the playoffs should still be their goal, despite the long odds.

But the reality is that the Rams are making it very uncomfortable for anyone they line up against. And in two of the next three weeks, they will line up against the Cardinals and Seahawks, the teams vying for the NFC West title - and potentially home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

St. Louis comes off consecutive shutouts. Yes, the Rams blanked Oakland and Washington, and these are not quite the John Madden Raiders or Joe Gibbs Redskins.

But the defense has become, to use a once-familiar adjective for the franchise, fearsome. The previous time the Rams shut out two straight opponents was 1945. Not even their Deacon Jones-led Fearsome Foursome managed that feat.

''1945? We're about to shut out three!'' defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. ''When's the last time we shut out three?''

Never.

But as Arizona comes calling on Thursday night - that would be banged-up Arizona now without its top running back, Andre Ellington - who's to say the Rams won't make history?

''I am really excited for the guys. Back-to-back shutouts are pretty impressive. I've been told it hasn't happened since the `40s in our organization,'' said coach Jeff Fisher, who also should be excited for himself and his staff.

Fisher's nearly three decades of NFL coaching have been highlighted by several rebuilding projects. He's in Year 3 with the Rams, and things looked bleak early in the schedule.

Indeed, there were critics who believed Fisher was on the hot seat when St. Louis was 1-4.

The truth is, he hasn't had his full roster for nearly his entire tenure in St. Loo. Fisher still doesn't know who will be his quarterback going forward in the league's best division.

What he does know, and what the rest of the league is recognizing, is that the former defensive back with the great Chicago Bears of the 1980s has a defense to avoid.

''It has a lot to do with the health and familiarity of the guys,'' Fisher said after Sunday's win at Washington. ''Guys are maturing and we are getting a lot of positive plays out of a lot of guys. The secondary is playing well and they are challenging people. When you are getting sacks and takeaways and you aren't giving away the ball on offense, you have a chance to win a lot of games.''

The Cardinals and Seahawks are very aware of that. They also might shudder when they hear Fisher add: ''I look at this saying, `We can play better.' ''

On defense, that's difficult to imagine. They had seven sacks among six players against the Redskins, and tend to get pressure from everyone in the rotation, led, of course, by Robert Quinn.

After a horrendous start, with no sacks in his first five games, he has 10 1-2. The fourth-year defensive end, along with fellow DE Chris Long, tackles Brockers and rookie Aaron Donald, and linebacker James Laurinaitis, form the youthful foundation of a formidable unit.

That unit is getting the hang of intense coordinator Gregg Williams' schemes, making it almost a match for the other strong defenses in the division. It might already be better than injury-damaged San Francisco's D.

Fisher's teams always have had standout running games, and he's searched for the right ball carriers since Steven Jackson left in 2013. It appears they have the answer in big-play rookie Tre Mason.

It all might add up to only a .500 season or worse this year for the Rams. But it makes them Public Enemy No. 1 for the Cardinals and Seahawks, division rivals with big aspirations that Fisher's ''guys'' just might deflate.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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