As they begin the homestretch of the 2012 NFL season, Steven Jackson and the St. Louis Rams have their eyes on the prize: a potential spot in the playoffs.

Steven and the Rams are looking to shoot up the standings in the final month and make a run at the playoffs (Getty Images).

But with a handful of teams standing in their way and a tricky schedule rounding out December, SJ39 and company can’t afford to take a breather—not even after last Sunday’s pound-it-out win over San Francisco. After a marathon slugfest like that, a consummate pro like S-Jax knows he has to heal fast and get prepared—physically, mentally, and emotionally—for the next opponent in line.

But he thinks the Rams have proven that they’re not to be taken lightly either and their recent success has gained St. Louis respect around the game.

“Teams are going to respect the St. Louis Rams now when they see us on the schedule,” he said. “They know we’re a tough-nosed team that’s never going to back down, regardless of the situation, regardless of what the past may have been. This team has taken on a new identity.”

This Sunday the new-look Rams head north to face the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium and No. 39 expects everyone in the locker room to be ready.

“Coach has done a good job of taking care of us, particularly this week. We had a tough game against San Francisco, he’s allowed us to get our legs back under us,” Steven said. “We have an excellent game plan and we’re looking forward to Sunday.”

The Bills have endured some rough patches this season, but are certainly not a team St. Louis can afford to look past. Buffalo is 5-7, and—like the Rams— fighting to stay in the playoff discussion. With that in mind, both teams enter Sunday’s contest with everything on the line.

“This team is focused on Buffalo,” head coach Jeff Fisher said. “It’s our next opponent. There’s too much that could happen right now. I don’t even know what the record is of some teams in the division. So, we just go play.”

Steven and the Rams have endured their own fair share of difficult moments this season, including a stretch of almost two months without a win. But now the Rams look like a team gaining traction. Quarterback Sam Bradford is distributing the ball well, the defense is creating turnovers, and—most importantly—Steven is showing there’s nothing “old” about his legs.

In the last four weeks, S-Jax has averaged 92 ground yards per game and has been laying vicious blows on opposing defenses. Because the Rams have turned to SJ more in recent weeks, his powerful rushes have forced defenses to overcompensate and that has opened up play-action opportunities for Bradford and the receiving corps.

Steven figures to be a key factor again this week when the Rams line up against the Bills. Buffalo is one of the league’s worst teams against the run and currently ranks 30th in the league with 139.2 yards allowed per game. But S-Jax knows at least one Bills defender that can be tough to get past; his former college teammate at Oregon State, Nick Barnett. Steven grinned when talking about his old teammate this week.

“Nick and I are good friends,” SJ said. “We had some great, classic battles in college. We were two young pups. He’s had a great career and has continued to look good on film. I’ve watched film all week, and that front seven, particularly Nick, they move pretty good. He’s sideline to sideline, the Nick Barnett that I know.”

With playoff hopes and league respect on the line, rest assured the two friends will be exchanging more hard hits than pleasantries up until the final whistle. Unlike Steven, the Bills defense probably isn’t smiling when they consider the prospect of No. 39 coming into town.

The Bills have had it relatively easy against the run in recent weeks, facing teams in the Colts, Dolphins, and Jaguars that don’t feature a strong ground game. But when the Bills face a team with a big-time feature back, they’ve given up yards in massive chunks. Through the heart of the season the Bills gave up over 100 yards and a score to Arian Foster, Chris Johnson and Frank Gore. Stevan Ridley of the Patriots nearly did the same, gashing Buffalo for 98 yards and a score.

With the Rams leaning more on S-Jax as their prominent rusher, Buffalo will be bracing themselves for pending impact. But Steven knows before he can reunite with his college buddy Barnett at the second level, he’ll have to get past Buffalo’s massive defensive tackles, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. Weighing in at a combined 634 pounds, the duo is a wall Steven knows he’ll have to break through.

“They don’t get the credit that they deserve, but their two d-tackles, they have great timing,” No. 39 said. “They know how to jump a snap count and they’re going to get up field in a hurry. We have to make sure that we sit back, but use some of their aggressiveness against them as well.”

SJ39 should be a big part of the gameplan on Sunday in Buffalo (Getty Images).

With receiver Danny Amendola still listed as questionable, the Rams will be looking to SJ39 and the running game in a big way. A win on Sunday in Buffalo would give St. Louis its first 3-0 run since 2006 and their first pair of back-to-back road victories since late in 2010.

But the road hasn’t been exactly friendly to St. Louis this year. The Rams didn’t notch their first away win until two weeks ago in Arizona. Factor in the chilly weather the Rams will encounter in Buffalo, and their game with the Bills certainly won’t feel like “dome sweet dome”.

“They’re going to play some good football,” Steven said. “We cannot allow some outside factors to affect the way we approach this game, because Buffalo is a very good team. We’re definitely expecting it to be a little cold up there. But the elements are a part of the game, we’ll be prepared for it. We just gotta make sure that we lock in and make sure the details of our assignments we take care of it now, so on Sunday we’re just reacting and not allowing things that we cannot control to affect us.”

Cooler weather is certainly going to play a part in Sunday’s game. Weather forecasters have predicted a drizzly afternoon with temperatures in the 40s for Sunday in Buffalo. So does weather like that present any challenges for SJ39 and company?

“There’s really no challenges. They have to be in the cold as well. We practice outside, it’s not like we practice in the dome,” Steven said. “We just gotta make sure that we treat it like any other game, that we’re on top of our assignments and we’re doing what we need to do.”

Rain or snow, clear skies or dome, Steven plans to carry on the success this team is building. With just four games left in the regular season, SJ39 guarantees everything will be left on the field.

“We’re going to be a tough physical team, we’re going to play 60 minutes of football,” Steven said. “Guys are going to give their all to fly around out there on Sunday.”

At 5-6-1, the Rams are aware of the ever-living playoff hopes. For a guy like Steven—who has ridden through the ups and downs with his franchise—the smell of playoff hopes is sweet.

“We dare to dream, but we know we’ve got to do it one game at a time,” he said. “We have a tremendous team, a lot of talent in this locker room, and guys that are willing to stick around, study film together, put in the time so we can all trust and go together. It’s starting to happen. You can see it on the football field, that we’re willing to play, we say, through the echo of the whistle. Guys are playing hard for each other.”

Sunday’s kickoff is scheduled for Noon CST and the game will be televised on FOX.