Contenders have to be capable of winning ugly. That isn't something the Rams have needed to do often this season, because they've spent most of their time lighting up the scoreboard with a balanced, high-powered offensive attack.
But Sunday was different.
Quarterback Jared Goff was good, not great. He completed 21 of 31 passes for a pedestrian 220 yards. He threw a nasty, uncharacteristic interception in the first quarter, and he completed only two passes that traveled 15-plus yards. Meanwhile, running back Todd Gurley, who will almost certainly join Goff in the Pro Bowl, had a big day as a receiver (84 yards on six catches) but averaged just 3.9 yards per attempt as a rusher.
The offense also took seven penalties and converted just three of 11 third-down attempts.
But that unit was bailed out by the defense and special teams in a 32-16 road win, confirming that the Rams are in fact a multi-trick pony.
When a promising opening drive was blown up by a three-yard Gurley loss and a delay-of-game penalty, kicker Greg Zuerlein came to the rescue with a 56-yard field goal. Then the defense immediately intercepted Cardinals quarterback Blaine Gabbert, setting Goff and Co. up at their opponent's 23-yard line (it took 'em seven plays, but they found the end zone).
On their next offensive possession, Goff made a rookie mistake when he failed to account for Kareem Martin underneath on a screen pass intended for Gurley. It might have been a pick-six if Martin didn't weigh 272 pounds. But two plays later, the defense again posted bail when linebacker Alec Ogletree intercepted Gabbert. And unlike Martin, Ogletree brought that to the house.
Dov Kleiman @NFL_DovKleiman
The #Rams Alec Ogeltree INT for a touchdown off Blaine Gabbrett https://t.co/vo6wBjQWk22017-12-3 22:05:43
When the Cards got on the board for the second time in the second quarter, the Rams blocked the extra-point attempt. And when Arizona had a chance to make it a one-score game with 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Los Angeles again came up with a block on a 45-yard Phil Dawson field-goal attempt.
The L.A. offense went three-and-out four times and had only one drive of 60 yards or more, but the game's best punter, Johnny Hekker, unleashed two punts of 57-plus yards, Zuerlein was a perfect 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts, stud return man Pharoh Cooper averaged 15 yards per punt return and the defense was lights-out in the second half.
On the road against a talented division rival that played spoiler just a week ago versus the playoff-contender Jacksonville Jaguars, this was a statement victory for one of the league's youngest but most resourceful teams.
The Rams don't need to spend the rest of the year winning track meets if their special teams can continue to make game-changing plays. And there's no reason to believe that'll stop, because the team excelled in that phase of the game before head coach Sean McVay took over, before Goff established himself as an MVP candidate and before Gurley bounced back from a sophomore slump.
And Goff, Gurley and Co. can afford to have more imperfect outings if the D can continue to hold opponents to 20 or fewer points—something it hsa now done in seven of the last eight games.
There's also little reason to believe that'll change, because Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aaron Donald is well-supported by veterans Mark Barron, Ogletree, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and Trumaine Johnson, along with emerging defensive backs Lamarcus Joyner (a fourth-year second-round pick who had his third interception of the season Sunday) and John Johnson III (a rookie third-round pick who has already become an asset at strong safety).
Johnson, third-round wide receiver Cooper Kupp and free-agent additions Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and Andrew Whitworth have all played major roles in their debut campaigns with the Rams. McVay—the youngest head coach in NFL history—has to be considered a strong Coach of the Year candidate, considering that the franchise has now clinched its first winning season since 2003. But don't overlook what the venerable Wade Phillips has done for a defense that ranked 23rd in the league with 24.6 points per game allowed in 2016.
Prior to Week 13, Phillips' D ranked fifth at Football Outsiders in terms of DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average), and only four defenses had generated more takeaways. It likely won't lose ground this week, considering the performance in Arizona. Those two first-quarter picks led directly or indirectly to 13 points, the Rams sacked Gabbert six times and they held the Cards to just a single field goal in the second half.
|Rams Defense: 2016 vs. 2017|
|Pro Football Reference/NFL.com|
In their first year under Phillips, the Los Angeles defense has already forced three more turnovers than it did all of last season with Gregg Williams at the helm. It has surrendered just 18.5 points per game, which ranks seventh in football and is a six-point improvement over 2016.
The explosive offense is the center of attention in Los Angeles, but the Rams wouldn't be 9-3 right now if they weren't a complete team. Sunday's less-than-crisp, yet still one-sided road victory reveals just how complete they are, and just how tough they'll be in January.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.