Alden Gonzalez, ESPN Staff Writer 12d

Something special might be taking place with the Rams

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tavon Austin was with the Los Angeles Rams last season, when a 3-1 start turned into a 4-12 finish.

He knows better.

"We're definitely feeling good, but we definitely know what it feels like to lose, too," Austin said. "You can lose 'X' amount straight, and I was part of that team."

Robert Quinn spent the previous six years with the Rams, a stretch when the organization lost 65 percent of the time.

He won't get excited yet, either.

"This is a long season," Quinn said. "There's a lot of great teams out there, great players, and all it takes is one week, snowball effect, and it can get ugly pretty fast."

The Rams still are saying the right things, still believing in the right things. But tucked within their humility is the burgeoning belief that something special is taking place within their locker room, an idea that seems to inch closer to reality as the weeks roll by. Their 52-17 victory over the reeling New York Giants on Sunday was the latest, most vivid example.

It pushed the Rams to 6-2, which amounts to their best start since a 2001 season that ended in a Super Bowl appearance. It gave them 40-plus points for the third time this year, after tallying 40 points only twice in the previous 10 years. And it marked the second straight game during which their offense, defense and special teams all prevailed together, a stretch that has seen the Rams outscore opponents by a combined 67 points.

"I see all the spots you need to be a playoff team," said Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, himself a part of six playoff teams. "A good special-teams unit, a defense that is creating turnovers and making it hard for people to score a ton of points, and an offense that's moving the ball."

The Rams, coming off 10 consecutive losing seasons, lead the NFL with a plus-108 point differential. Their offense, last in the NFL in yards in 2015 and 2016, has topped last year's point total through half a season. Their defense has allowed the eighth-fewest yards per play over the past five weeks, while sitting only three shy of the NFL lead in turnovers for the season.

In Week 9, against an injury-riddled Giants team with only one win, the Rams got a strip-sack from Aaron Donald, a forced fumble from Alec Ogletree and an interception from Trumaine Johnson. Cory Littleton, a second-year undrafted linebacker, blocked his second punt in a three-game stretch. Greg Zuerlein drilled his NFL-leading 22nd, 23rd and 24th field goals. The offense, meanwhile, scored on eight of its first nine possessions, finished with six touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per play.

"You can see how we’re going out there, competing," Rams running back Todd Gurley said. "All three phases -- offense, defense, special teams -- everybody’s been doing their part."

It started with Jared Goff, who went 14-of-22 for 311 yards, a career-high four touchdowns and a career-high 146.8 passer rating. Gurley gained 104 scrimmage yards and added two touchdowns, giving him an NFL-leading 10 on the year. Sammy Watkins hauled in a 67-yard touchdown catch and Robert Woods scored twice, one on a 52-yard catch-and-run on third-and-long.

"We're locked in, man, we really are," Johnson said. "And we’re playing this game like we have a losing record, still feeling like the underdog. These games, a lot of people are doubting us. And I feel like we’re just proving a lot of people wrong every week."

Those still cynical about the Rams' legitimacy will point to their favorable early schedule, and there might be some truth to that.

The Rams have beaten three basement-dwellers in the Colts (3-6), 49ers (0-9) and Giants (1-7), while losing at home to a couple of potential playoff teams in the Redskins (4-4) and Seahawks (5-3). But don't overlook a couple of impressive road wins against the Cowboys and Jaguars, both of whom sit at 5-3. Or how handily they beat the Cardinals (4-4) in London. Or how thoroughly impressive they looked when they opened their season and when they played their most recent game.

When asked repeatedly about the biggest difference in this year's Rams, players consistently pointed to the ways first-year head coach Sean McVay has changed the culture. It became the perfect mix, a locker room tired of losing that quickly embraced McVay, who brought contagious energy, a clear message, an innovative scheme and natural leadership.

The front office then maintained a special-teams unit that might be the NFL's best, augmented a defense that already was solid and added the right pieces to a lacking offense, from Whitworth to Watkins to Woods and so many others.

"It's kind of like a perfect little nucleus of the fact that you had some talent, you had some ability," Whitworth said, "and we created a culture where we're all pulling in the same direction."

The Rams still are careful not to get ahead of themselves.

"We're just staying in the moment, taking it week by week," cornerback Kayvon Webster said when asked if this is starting to resemble a playoff team.

"One game at a time here," Woods added. "We're not looking at it like that."

"Eight games in," Goff cautioned. "You've seen it in the past. It happens all the time, where teams start out hot and they don't finish the season the right way."

It's hard to consider the big picture when one is so immersed in the routine, so caught up in the process. The Rams remain entrenched in the moment. But there are a lot of players on their roster who have been here for a long time, felt the sting of continual losing for a long time. They add the necessary mix of appreciation and discontent.

"To us, words can’t express how we feel," said left guard Rodger Saffold, midway through his eighth year with the Rams. "And I think that’s why we continue to just be leaders on this team and drive everybody in the direction that we need to go."

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