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This time, Rams roll into playoffs knowing what they're in for

LOS ANGELES – After missing the playoffs in every season since 2004, the Los Angeles Rams emerged as the kings of the NFC West division and entered last year’s postseason not knowing what they didn’t know.

The Rams entered those playoffs with little in the way of big-game experience, a young quarterback who’d never performed on the playoff stage and the youngest head coach in the league in his first season on the job trying to guide them through it all.

Like anything, the only way to gain the needed heat on your feet is to jump into the postseason fire. The Rams did that, lost and emerged this season on the other side with not only a better roster and a better record (13-3) but a team better equipped to make noise in the postseason.

Where last year’s Rams were a classic worst-to-first story, this year’s edition heads toward January as a Bona fide Super Bowl contender with the expectations to match.

And while Sunday’s 48-32 win against the San Francisco 49ers doesn’t offer much insight into how the Rams will perform when they reach the postseason, it did plenty to ensure the Rams are much better positioned to make some noise in the next month.

With this victory against the Niners, the Rams secured the No. 2 seed in the NFC and, most important, a bye that pushes them through to the NFC Divisional round. As Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has put it, a bye in the postseason is as good as a win because it ensures you’ve moved into a round beyond the next one on tap.

For the Rams, it could mean even more than that. First and foremost, it offers an opportunity to get running back Todd Gurley (knee) and safety Lamarcus Joyner (ankle) back to full strength and heal up any other remaining bumps and bruises.

Having Gurley, in particular, will be critical for an offense that has shown some warts over the past month. He’s missed the past two games because of that left knee soreness. Fresh legs are an impossibility at this point in the season, but a healthy Gurley, even if he’s a bit rusty remains the Rams’ most dynamic offensive weapon.

“Hopefully that time rested will serve us well,” coach Sean McVay said. “He's going to be continuing to work out, try to keep himself in shape. How we're able to do that, a lot of it is predicated on how that knee's responding and what kind of rehab process that we can implement. You would ideally not like to have one of your best players miss any time. But if that's the case, it's not going to be something that's going to prevent our ability to have him go and have a normal, full workload if he's able to go."

The Rams’ offensive line has also had some hiccups in recent weeks, particularly against top pass-rushing teams like the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, the exact type of teams that await in the postseason.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the leader of that group departed Sunday’s game with a knee injury and did not return. The extra week off provides him and some of the other veteran linemen a chance to hit refresh as well.

Perhaps just as important as any of that, though, is that these Rams don’t figure to enter this postseason as wide-eyed or just-happy-to-be-there as they did a year ago. In 2017’s Week 17 matchup against the Niners, the Rams rested their starters, choosing to steal some rest at the expense of momentum.

Whether it had anything to do with the ensuing loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the Wild Card round is in the eye of the beholder but it’s something McVay has acknowledged he’s learned from. That was a disappointing end to an impressive season but it provided all of their key young players a taste of the postseason crucible.

In the offseason, Los Angeles added more veterans like cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, both of whom have previous postseason experience and, in Talib’s case, a Super Bowl ring.

"I would say this, I like this situation a lot better than last year,” McVay said this week. “Certainly, everything is a learning opportunity. But, last year provided a little bit different approach. This year, we're going to do everything that we can in our power to try to go win against a tough football team."

On Sunday, the Rams got that win and, in the process, put themselves in better position to turn postseason lessons learned into playoff victories earned.