Bradford's accelerated success has raised the stakes in St. Louis

Jeff Roberson / Associated Press
Sam Bradford has helped take a team that won one game last year to the brink of the playoffs.

The night before losing at New Orleans, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford and teammate James Laurinaitis went out for dinner in the French Quarter and did a little sightseeing -- except they themselves were the sights being seen.

Well, not so much Laurinaitis.

"It was like being with the Messiah," Laurinaitis said.

In a city whose hometown quarterback has been likened to Jesus in a variety of ways, and whose team is the pulse of the re-energized city, Laurinaitis and Bradford were taken aback by the attention.

As it turns out, that dinner experience was just an appetizer.

Bradford, the all-but-certain lock for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, will be on center stage in a do-or-die season finale for the NFC West title when his Rams play at Seattle on Sunday night. He's handled the resurrection of one of the NFL's doormat franchises with unflinching poise, but there hasn't been much pressure in that regard.

After earning just one victory a season ago, everything attained this year was gravy until now. The Rams are a victory away from a playoff berth, and Bradford's accelerated success has raised the stakes.

A loss, and things will still be okay since the Rams have exceeded expectations. They're still better than they were, and there's hope moving forward. A victory, though, could render the mini-spectacle in the French Quarter a mere Tweet.

"It is a big game for our organization, but what's been apparent to everybody from early on is how under control Sam is," general manager Billy Devaney said. "He'll be that way in Seattle. He does a great job of staying even keel, not getting too high or too low, and he's shown early on that pressure situations don't affect him. It will not have any effect on him come Sunday."

St. Louis is playing for a playoff berth because of Bradford. Don't kid yourself into thinking the Rams would be here without him. He's more than validated himself as the top overall draft pick, and has re-confirmed the trend that quarterbacks drafted high can play right away -- and win.

Bradford has also shown that if a team has a good quarterback, the odds of success greatly increase. The NFC West, whose champion will post a record no better than 8-8, provides the glaring example.

Paul Jasienski / Associated Press
Aside from his rookie completions mark, Sam Bradford reached another standard by winning his seventh game.
Most wins by rookie QB drafted No. 1 overall (since 1970)

Arizona: Quarterback issues, out of the playoff picture. San Francisco: Quarterback issues, out of the playoff picture. Seattle: Quarterback issues, but not so disruptive that it's out of playoff contention. Still, because of injuries, backup Charlie Whitehurst is expected to start the Seahawks' most important game of the season.

"Our division is the way it is because there's either been change at quarterback, and in Seattle they had a coaching change," Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson said. "There's change at the key spots, but when you look at it so much of it comes back to quarterback play. Just look around the league."

To prove the point, look at the teams that have clinched playoff berths already: New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Kansas City, the New York Jets, Philadephia, Chicago, and Atlanta. They have good quarterbacks. Those still in contention: St. Louis, Seattle, Tampa Bay, the New York Giants, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Green Bay.

The Rams and Seahawks arguably have the most unsteady quarterback situations of that group.

That said, Bradford is the best quarterback in the NFC West. That could be viewed as an indictment of the division, but when it comes to Bradford personnel evaluators and coaches say he he's got "franchise fixture" written all over him, and he could reign as King of the West for years.

He's already fixed so much with the woeful Rams in one year and all signs point to him doing for St. Louis what Matt Ryan did for Atlanta, Josh Freeman has done for Tampa Bay, and what Joe Flacco has produced with Baltimore.

In completing 28 of 37 passes for 292 yards and a touchdown (107 passer rating) in a victory over San Francisco on Sunday, Bradford became the all-time rookie leader for completed passes with 335 -- surpassing Peyton Manning. Bradford, who has thrown for 3,357 yards, also joins Manning and Ryan as the only rookies to exceed 3,000 passing yards.

"He's accurate, and that's critical," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "He has really good arm strength and delivery. He's playing with confidence. He's also athletic, and they like to move him out of the pocket. He's very comfortable doing that. He's gained confidence as the season's gone on. He's playing well for a first-year guy. His stature, poise in the pocket, and you've seen him even under duress, get the ball out, take a hit and still be effective. He's impressive."

Bradford has done what he's done this season without a top-flight wide receiver or tight end. Other than selfless tailback Steven Jackson, Bradford might be working with fewer threats than any quarterback in the NFL. Coach Steve Spagnuolo and Devaney said that Bradford has never asked for more help. Then again, he doesn't know any better since he hasn't played with anyone else and doesn't know what he's missing.

That help will be en route this offseason.

The Rams are what they are as is the aw-shucks Bradford, who is humble and aware that he is a rookie, but also cognizant that he is the leader of the team. Bradford's demeanor has been compared to that of Ryan and Brady.

He's even-keeled yet he'll push teammates when he has to because he is super-competitive. They don't mind when he shoots them that "C'mon" look because he's just as hard on himself without being insecure. Teammates believe in him. In fact, he's all but had them since hello.

During an open scrimmage in training camp at Lindenwood University in suburban St. Louis, Bradford was putting on a passing clinic in team drills in front of roughly 10,000 fans. He was pumping throws into tight coverage, but where only receivers could catch the ball. His accuracy and touch was off the charts. It was the moment when everyone in the organization knew they had something.

"I remember standing next to a couple of our DBs, and after two or three of these incredible throws they were hitting each other saying, 'Do you believe this guy?'" Devaney said. "This is the guy we ride to the playoffs. This is the type of guy who takes you to the playoffs. The players saw it for the first time, and they bought in to him right there."

It hasn't always been perfect. Bradford is a rookie. He has thrown 14 interceptions, and he's yet to beat a team with a winning record -- the Rams have played just four.

One of those teams was the Saints.

With the chance to pull the Rams to within a point just before halftime of that Dec. 12 game, Bradford got baited into a bad throw by safety Malcolm Jenkins, who intercepted Bradford near the end zone and returned the blunder 96 yards for a touchdown. With his team down 21-6, Bradford slowly walked to the sideline, uncapped his helmet, walked to the bench, sat down, and briefly stewed.

St. Louis got routed as Bradford completed 18 of 32 for 231 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns. It was the second game of a three-game stretch in which he failed to throw a touchdown, but threw five interceptions. Either he had hit the rookie wall at the most inopportune time or defenses had figured him out. Or so the theories went.

He responded by torching the 49ers last Sunday to pull the NFC West-leading Rams to 7-8. Getting to .500 would have been beyond the team's dreams before the season. Getting to 8-8 and winning the division wasn't even part of the plan, even three or four games ago. Bradford rarely talks about himself unless he feels he didn't play well.

Such was the case after his big game against San Francisco. Such will probably be the case if he guides the Rams to the playoffs as well.

"When you set out at the beginning of the year, you always want to have the opportunity to make the playoffs late in the year," Bradford told reporters after Sunday's victory. "Here we are going into our last regular-season game and we control our own destiny. So if that doesn't excite you, I really don't know what does."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.