Remember last season when the St. Louis Rams won, or at least tied, games with their NFC West rivals? The Rams swept the Cardinals, split the Seahawks 1-1 and tied the 49ers before beating them less than a month later. In spite of that that lofty performance, they still finished the season 7-8-1.
We spent the better part of the offseason pointing toward that division record as a sign of progress and things to come in 2013. Now, the Rams are 5-8, mathematically eliminated from the playoff chase and 11 seasons removed from the team's last winning effort. Last season's 4-1-1 division record turned into 1-4, with one more game to go in Seattle, where the Rams haven't won since 2004.
Our biggest mistake was focusing on last year's record within the division. Like "clutch" performances, it means nothing in the overall path to improvement. It's an important tiebreaker, but tiebreakers only matter for playoff teams.
Let's look back at a couple of key stats from last season.
A team's record from year to year in game decided by seven points or less is inconsistent. Things like bad bounces and referees can change the outcome. It's the idea of Any Given Sunday given some numerical context.
The 2012 Rams had eight close games, half their season, decided by a touchdown or less. That includes the first two weeks of the season when the Rams were 1-1. Overall, the 2012 Rams were 4-3-1 in those close games.
Their record in close games also says plenty about their results within the NFC West. Five out of six division games were decided by seven points or less. The Rams were 3-1-1 in close division games. That number alone suggested a bounce back this season.
And what about this year's group? Through 13 games, four of them have been decided by a touchdown or less. The Rams are 1-3 in those games. Two of those games came against division opponents; the Rams were 1-1 in those two games.
The Pythagorean formula for win total accounts for a team's points scored and points allowed. The point differential levels all wins and losses and offers a better prediction of what a team's record should actually look like. The 2012 Rams scored 289 points and allowed 348, for a point differential of -49.
Plug that into the Pythagorean formula and the 2012 Rams had an expected win total of 6.6. In other words, they were close, but still a game beyond their expected win total (since you don't actually have fractions of a win or a loss).
This year's Rams team is actually under performing it's expected win total. The formula has the 2013 Rams at 6-7, one win off from their actual record of 5-8. The Rams have already matched their point total from last year, with 289 points through 13 games. The defense is allowing 308 points, up from an average of 21.8 last year to 23.7 this year. They have a point differential of -19.
Strength of schedule
According to Football Outsiders, the 2012 Rams had the second-most difficult schedule, encountering opponents with an average DVOA of 9.4 percent.
The 2013 Rams had the seventh hardest schedule through their first 12 games (FO's data isn't updated for the Week 13 games until Wednesday). Opponents through that stretch had an average DVOA of 3.1 percent. Over their last four games, including this week's loss in Arizona, the Rams have the league's hardest schedule, with opponents averaging a 16.6 percent DVOA.
The Rams made a nice living off turnovers last year. That's another inconsistent number from year to year. The weird thing is that the Rams actually have a better turnover margin this year than they did last year, from -1 to +7.
The biggest difference for the defense is fumble recovery. They've recovered 12 opponent fumbles this season versus just eight fumbles lost. They recovered just four fumbles last season, while the offense fumbled the ball eight times.
The defense has 12 interceptions this year, while the quarterbacks have thrown only nine picks in 2013. Last year's Rams had 17 interceptions, but the 2012 Rams threw 14 picks.
But turnovers aren't something teams can count on from year to year. Just look at the interception total. Janoris Jenkins scored two touchdowns on turnovers in a 31-17 win over the Cardinals in Week 12 last year. Think about the impact that had in that game. The Rams had four touchdowns via interceptions and one more from a recovered fumble last year -- Jenkins had four of them. This year, the Rams have two touchdowns from interceptions and three off fumble returns.
Coming out of a 2-14 season, last year's 7-8-1 record was a breath of fresh air for the Rams, their best finish since going 8-8 in 2006.
The jump from two wins to seven was great for fans hungry to see a Rams team actually capable of winning games. Beating division rivals that had made a regular habit of kicking them around made it that much sweeter.
Unfortunately, it was also out of line with reality, and probably upped expectations for 2013 to level where they didn't belong.
There's good news here too. The Rams 2013 season has been brought to you by regression to the mean. But next year, the Rams are poised for a bounce back, injuries and a smart offseason of personnel moves permitting.