LOS ANGELES -- Rodger Saffold knows the sour, which allows him to appreciate the sweet. The veteran offensive lineman spent the past seven seasons with the Rams, a time dominated by turmoil and setbacks. By blown leads, lopsided losses and empty Decembers. But it's late November now, and the 2017 Los Angeles Rams still are thriving -- still in first place, still relatively whole, still astonishing naysayers.
They won for the eighth time on Sunday, three days after Thanksgiving, and thus guaranteed their first non-losing campaign since 2006, with five games remaining in their upstart season.
It made Saffold smile.
"It’s definitely better walking into the building on Monday, which usually was tough," Saffold said from the home locker room at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, moments after a 26-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints. "Going back and forth between winning and losing some years, and constant losing in other years, having this kind of success, and having it consistently happen, is big for us."
Coming off 10 straight losing seasons and a 4-12 showing in their first year back in L.A., the Rams currently are the No. 3 seed in the NFC. They lead their division by a game, with an offense that is averaging nearly 30 points per game and a defense that is giving up less than 19.
On Sunday, the Rams were without leading receiver Robert Woods, but Jared Goff still managed to throw for 354 yards and complete at least one pass to eight teammates. They gave up a 74-yard touchdown run to Alvin Kamara, but allowed only 3.1 yards per carry on every other attempt. They faced a team that had won eight consecutive games, and they prevailed.
"Huge" Goff called the win, his team's biggest this season.
"Everything goes along with it," he said. "It's an NFC team; a team that's won eight in a row. We're coming off a loss, they're coming off eight wins. We're playing at home, in front of our fans. Drew Brees, a Hall of Famer. I mean, all that stuff goes together. It makes it a big win, and one that we're definitely going to hang our hat on and be happy about."
Goff endured one of the toughest seasons imaginable for a rookie in 2016, but he began the 2017 calendar year with hope. The 23-year-old quarterback knew all about what Sean McVay did to help launch Kirk Cousins' career in Washington and felt confident he could do the same as his new head coach.
Matt LaFleur, who spent the past two years with Matt Ryan, joined the team as the offensive coordinator. Greg Olson, with 12 years of experience as an offensive coordinator, became his position coach. And Goff felt confident that the right staff was being placed around him. Then came the players. Andrew Whitworth became the new left tackle, John Sullivan the center. Woods was signed in free agency, Sammy Watkins came over in a trade, Cooper Kupp and Gerald Everett were drafted. And Goff, knowing his defense and special teams was already solid, started to believe the Rams might be a lot better than the pundits realized.
But he couldn't be certain until the games took place.
"And there’s some games this year where we kind of realized that we can play with anybody," Goff said. "This is for sure one of them.”
This was a game when the Rams showed they can beat playoff-caliber opponents. They won on the road against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Dallas Cowboys earlier in the year, but those teams have proven not to be as dynamic and well-rounded as the Saints. The Rams have yet to lose twice in a row. They dropped a tough one seven days earlier, on the road against a Minnesota Vikings team that is tied for the NFL's second-best record. And they bounced back.
"I think this team is battle-tested," defensive lineman Michael Brockers said. "That's what we showed today."
"It was just a big challenge for our team, to show that we are something to be reckoned with," outside linebacker Robert Quinn added. "We have a lot to prove still, but it’s great to have this one under our belt.”
McVay wasn't ready to make any proclamations. Another game looms Sunday, this one against the Arizona Cardinals. Tougher ones, at home against the first-place Philadelphia Eagles and on the road against the division-rival Seattle Seahawks, will follow. McVay called this the biggest win of the year, but only "because it was the most recent."
"It sounds monotonous," McVay said, "but the biggest thing is we got to 8-3."
Eight wins didn't mean all that much to most Rams. Their goals are so much higher, their belief now so much greater. But Todd Gurley was conscious of how different it might feel for the likes of Saffold and Brockers and Quinn.
"The guys that have been here multiple years and have seen the bad," Gurley said. "I'm just happy for guys like that to be able to go through this time and be able to enjoy these wins."