With Steven Jackson now in Atlanta and playing for the Falcons of the NFC South, the Rams’ No. 1 overall pick in 2010 finally becomes the undisputed leader of the team.

Unfortunately for Sam Bradford, the production has ebbed somewhat since he first took the NFL by storm three years ago, setting several rookie quarterback records. His second- and third-year campaigns featured injuries and a revolving door of head coaches and offensive coordinators, to say nothing of a less-than-stellar cast around him. While Bradford started all 16 games in 20212 and threw for a career-high 3,702 yards and 21 touchdowns, his offensive line frequently failed him. The Oklahoma product couldn’t exactly depend on a bevy of high-end targets, either.

Now, all of that changes – or so the Rams hope. General manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher worked in unison during the offseason to give Bradford quality reinforcements, adding tight end Jared Cook via free agency and drafting Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to complement emerging star Chris Givens in the receiving department.

In today’s season opener vs. the NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis will need to pick up where it off last year in terms of controlling the line of scrimmage both offensively and defensively. To that end, another addition, left tackle Jake Long, will be asked to help give Bradford adequate time to convert those all-important third-down conversions and ensure red-zone production through long, sustained drives every time the offense takes the field.

Without Jo-Lonn Dunbar, the defensive tone clearly turns into the domain of middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. He and others must stuff the Cardinals’ running game, making them one-dimensional and then squeezing the pocket with pressure to harass Carson Palmer. Turnovers and takeaways should loom large, as well as the St. Louis D’s ability to get off the field on third down.

Special teams, the third phase of the game, also figure to play a significant role in the contest. Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker must be on top of their games when called upon. Hekker will need great hang time, and the coverage unit will be key when punting the ball to one of the NFL’s most dangerous return men in Patrick Peterson.

Here is a look at the Rams’ entire schedule and my prediction for the 2013 season:

Sept. 8 vs. Arizona – Win

Sept. 15 at Atlanta – Loss

Sept. 22 at Dallas – Win

Sept. 26 vs. San Francisco – Win

First quarter: 3-1 record

Oct. 6 vs. Jacksonville – Win

Oct. 13 at Houston – Loss

Oct. 20 at Carolina – Loss

Oct. 28 vs. Seattle – Win

Second quarter: 2-2 record

Nov. 3 vs. Tennessee – Win

Nov. 10 at Indianapolis – Win


Nov. 24 vs. Chicago – Win

Dec. 1 at San Francisco – Loss

Third quarter: 3-1 record

Dec. 8 at Arizona – Win

Dec. 15 vs. New Orleans – Loss

Dec. 22 vs. Tampa Bay – Win

Dec. 29 at Seattle – Loss

Fourth quarter: 2-2 record

I break down the 16-game schedule into four quarters – four games in each quarter. The goal is to go 4-0 within each quarter, but reality is splitting and finishing no worse than 2-2 while trying to steal an extra game or two along the way.

It’s an interesting schedule for the Rams, filled with trends and quirks. They’ll have two divisional battles in the first and fourth quarters, and 13 of 16 games will be played in domed stadiums or in venues with a retractable roof. Three games are to unfold on natural grass, and then there’s the toughest quarter – the first, in which St. Louis must take on Arizona, Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco

Away – at Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Carolina, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle

Home – vs. Arizona, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Seattle, Tennessee, Chicago, New Orleans and Tampa Bay

My prediction: Bradford and company will have to take advantage of the home schedule and go 7-1 in the Edward Jones Dome, finding a way to take three out of eight on the road. The going promises to be considerably tougher outside of the Gateway City.

Digging deeper, if the Rams can indeed split games with the AFC South (Houston, Indianapolis, Tennessee and Jacksonville), they should finish a legitimate 3-1 outside of the NFC. A wild-card playoff berth may well hinge on as much, plus positive results vs. the NFC West and NFC South (Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay). All told, the Rams’ final six games are against NFC squads.

For the second straight year, St. Louis is home to the league’s youngest roster. Thirty-six players on the 53-man roster are under the age of 25, including 12 rookies. After scrutinizing this group throughout OTAs and training camp, however, I see a club that is ready to take it to the next level and become a playoff team now. The dominoes could fall in any number of directions, of course, but Bradford appears prepared to ascend. His fresh outside-the-numbers threats, all of whom have the ability to stretch the seams, seem ready to ascend. A fast-rising defensive unit is chomping at the bit to ascend.

Buckle up. Rams vs. Cardinals begins at 3:25 p.m. this afternoon.