In the recent history of the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday’s victory will hold comic and psychic significance. A meme can be retired. The wreckage former Coach Jeff Fisher caused can be shed. Any notion they remained a laughingstock can be forgotten. The Rams, officially, are not [bleeping] going 7-9.
Fisher’s infamous, profane and ultimately mocked rant on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” about not being mediocre surfaced Sunday, for its polarity to the Rams’ current status. The Rams’ 26-20 victory over the Saints, which snapped New Orleans’s eight-game winning streak, pushed them to 8-3 and clinched the franchise’s first .500-or-better season since — this is true — 2006. It pushed them a step closer to their first playoff season since 2004. It provided further evidence of first-year Coach Sean McVay’s remarkable, comprehensive and immediate overhaul.
As the Philadelphia Eagles continued to cement themselves as the best NFC’s best team 3,000 miles to the east, the Rams legitimized themselves as a worthy threat to their superiority. The Rams were at home, and the Saints played without their top two cornerbacks, including rookie Marshon Lattimore, a defensive rookie of the year candidate and one of the most important players on their roster. Still, the convincing nature of Los Angeles’s victory served notice. The Rams must be reckoned with.
There was an urgent quality to the victory. After the Minnesota Vikings thumped last week in an NFC showdown, it would have been a letdown to lose another. If the 9-2 Vikings falter, the Rams will hold a potentially decisive head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints for a bye. In the bigger picture, beating a fellow first-place contender signified how far the Rams have come, so quickly.
The size of the mess McVay inherited, and how ingrained in the franchise’s fabric it was, cannot be overstated. In the 10 years before this season, the Rams finished 32nd, 29th, 21nd, 21nd, 25th, 32nd, 26th, 32nd, 30th and 28th in points scored. This year, they rank third, behind only the Eagles and New England Patriots. The franchise’s last winning record came in 2003.
McVay, the youngest head coach in NFL history, instantly turned second-year quarterback Jared Goff, who was lost under Fisher, into a passer worthy of having been taken first overall. He simplified the offense, added tempo, empowered Goff by shaping a system suited to his strengths and promoted aggression. Goff has transformed from a possible bust to a likely Pro Bowler. Sunday, against the Saints’ diminished secondary, he passed for 354 yards despite the absence of No. 1 wideout Robert Woods.
The most promising thing about the Rams might be the steady improvement of their defense under coordinator Wade Phillips in his first season with the Rams. Hiring Phillips in the first place showed the wisdom McVay brought to the job. After a slow start, the Rams have started to pick up on Phillips’s schemes, which for several years made Denver’s defense the best in the NFL. The talent on their defense — including Aaron Donald, Alec Ogltree and Mark Barron — is real, and it’s coming together under Phillips. In their past seven games, the Rams have allowed 14.4 points per game.
The Rams, of all teams, have become one of the best teams in the NFL. They have a hard path still, with games ahead against the Seahawks and Eagles. In years past, those teams would have looked down on the Rams. This year, as Sunday proved, they must view them and their sensational coach as an equal. And that is no 7-9 bullcrap.
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