GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When it was still the offseason and the Los Angeles Rams' special-teams unit was getting excessive love, it was considered a punchline; an indictment on a team that seemingly couldn't do anything else right.
Now, it's a separator.
The Rams are resurgent on offense and dominant on defense, but they're also backed by perhaps the NFL's best special-teams unit, a well-rounded team in the truest sense. It showed up in Sunday's 32-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals, a game dominated by names such as Johnny Hekker and Greg Zuerlein and Pharoh Cooper.
"Big, man, big," Rams running back Todd Gurley II said of what the special-teams unit has meant to his 9-3 team. "I don't think no one's playing like those guys."
Zuerlein nailed a 56-yard field goal to cap the Rams' opening drive, making him 6-for-7 on attempts beyond 49 yards. He added three others, putting Zuerlein at 36-for-38 on field goals this season. And though he missed an extra point -- his first in 36 tries -- Zuerlein has accounted for 143 points, which easily leads the NFL and is on pace for a record.
"The guy works really, really hard, and it's really showing up," Hekker said. "A lot of fantasy football owners are happy out there."
Hekker made his impact to begin what became a major swing of events. The Rams led by only six, were reeling a bit and backed up deep in their own territory early in the third quarter. Hekker -- a three-time first-team All-Pro who set a record last season for punts downed inside the 20-yard line -- took a snap from his own end zone and pinned the Cardinals at their own 21.
"It's why you certainly don't take a great player like Johnny Hekker for granted," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "Great coverage in that instance, as well."
The Rams' defense then forced a three-and-out -- thanks largely to one of two sacks by Aaron Donald -- and Cooper lined up to return the ensuing punt.
"Every time I line up back there, I'm thinking, 'Let's go score,'" Cooper said. "That's the only thing in my head."
Cooper didn't reach the end zone but returned it 30 yards, giving the Rams the favorable field position that allowed them to score their third touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Jared Goff to Sammy Watkins. Cooper now ranks third in the NFL in yards per punt return (12.62) and first in yards per kickoff return (28.73), one of which he returned for a touchdown.
"It comes down to that pride," Zuerlein said of Cooper's return game. "Guys don't want their guy to make the tackle, so everyone is staying on their blocks. It's helping Pharoh out, and he's a great returner. He makes it look easy."
But the two biggest plays from Sunday's game might have been two blocked kicks by a unit that had already blocked two punts. Tyrunn Walker, a backup nose tackle, blocked Phil Dawson's extra-point attempt at the three-minute mark of the second quarter, keeping the Rams' lead at three. Michael Brockers, the Rams' starting defensive end, blocked Dawson's attempt from 45 yards out early in the fourth quarter, keeping it a two-score game.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians called it "the swing of the game."
"Our special teams is No. 1 in the league for a reason, because they give so much effort and they play so hard," Brockers said. "It’s a testament to them, how good they are."
The Rams have an elite punter, kicker, returner and long-snapper. They boast a solid coverage unit, one that is allowing the eighth-fewest yards per punt return and the 12th-fewest yards per kickoff return. And apparently, they can block field goals, too.
The Rams' special-teams unit entered Week 13 ranked second in defense-adjusted value over average (or DVOA, a Football Outsiders metric that measures a team's success on a given play versus what would have been expected given several factors). Then they dominated a game, securing the Rams' first winning season since 2003.
Hekker was asked if the Rams have the best special-teams unit in the NFL.
"I know without a [doubt] we’re the best-coached," Hekker said, a nod to sixth-year special-teams coordinator John Fassel. "Coach Fassel is a guy that has amazing attention to detail and focus on what he’s teaching us throughout the week. The proof’s in the pudding."