Rams sweep away Cardinals, secure first winning mark since 2003

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Sammy Watkins called it "a blessing." Michael Brockers described it as "a numbing feeling." Johnny Hekker said it was "really satisfying." Even Sean McVay -- the first-year head coach who continually preaches the importance of a one-game-at-a-time mentality -- acknowledged what it must mean to his seasoned Los Angeles Rams players, who helped lock up the franchise's first winning season in 14 years with Sunday's 32-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

Rodger Saffold, in his eighth year as a Rams offensive lineman, was asked how different this season feels.

"As different as it possibly can," he said. "It's night and day around here, obviously. It just makes you want to compete and continue to win."

The Rams weren't necessarily great at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, but their defense tightened up in the second half, their passing game stayed efficient, and their special-teams unit made a major impact against their injury-riddled division rivals. They're 9-3 now, off to their best start since 2003. But their goals are so much bigger.

"Very cool," Rams quarterback Jared Goff said of clinching a winning record. "But by no means are we finished."

What it means: That the Rams have been taking care of business, not messing around against the teams that they should beat. They have blown out the Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants and Houston Texans, and they have outscored the Cardinals by a combined 49 points in two meetings this season. The win allowed the Rams to stay one game behind the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles for that all-important first-round bye. They also stayed a game ahead of the division-rival Seattle Seahawks, who beat the Eagles on Sunday night.

Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth worried that this could serve as a proverbial trap game, given that the Eagles are next, but he "didn't hear a soul talk about the Eagles or really worry about the Eagles or think about the Eagles" in the week leading up to the Rams' Week 13 game. "To be honest, until this game was over, it was the first time anybody did bring up that game."

What I liked: The Rams' special-teams unit is one of the best in the NFL, and it showed Sunday. Tyrunn Walker blocked an extra-point attempt and Brockers blocked a 45-yard field-goal attempt. At one point, Hekker punted out of his own end zone and pinned the Cardinals to their own 21-yard line. After the L.A. defense forced a three-and-out, Pharoh Cooper returned a punt 30 yards, helping to set up the Rams' third touchdown. The Rams' opening drive ended in a 56-yard field goal from Greg Zuerlein, who is 6-for-7 on 50-plus-yard field goals this season.

Hekker was asked if he believes the Rams have the best special teams unit in the NFL and said, "I know without a [doubt] we're the best coached," a nod to 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," Hekker said. "The proof's in the pudding."

What I didn't like: It is difficult to answer this without feeling a little petty. The Rams jumped out to a 16-0 lead and let the Cardinals back in it with back-to-back touchdown drives -- one a methodical type that absorbed more than six minutes, the other taking up less than 2 1/2 minutes and resulting in a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald. But the defense picked up six sacks -- two of them by Aaron Donald, who has seven over his last seven games -- and held the Cardinals to 149 scrimmage yards in the second half, with only 18 of them coming on the ground.

"It's always going to be about keeping our gap integrity," McVay said. "We do a lot of things with our run game, as far as how we want to defend it, especially against a team like that, where there are a lot of the downhill, tough, power, no-pull schemes. They did a good job creating some movement. I think we were able to settle in, slow down some of that early-down efficiency, and then get yourself into those manageable second and third downs from a defensive perspective."

Fantasy fallout: Todd Gurley didn't get a whole lot of carries early, but he wound up carrying the load for the offense again. Gurley rushed for 74 yards on 19 carries and picked up another 84 yards on six catches, with the screen game working wonders for him once again. Gurley entered the game ranked second in the NFL in scrimmage yards, and he now has a career-high 1,502 on the year. Watkins had only three catches on four targets for 38 yards, but he scored a touchdown. Cooper Kupp had five catches for 68 yards. And Goff (21-of-31, 220 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) became the first Rams quarterback to top 3,000 yards since Sam Bradford in 2012.

"Did I?" Goff asked. "That's awesome. I think it's a credit to everything we do and everything our receivers have done and our O-line. I'm just trying to fill in, do my best."

Injury report: Alec Ogletree hyperextended his left elbow while making a tackle on a short pass across the middle at the two-minute mark of the first quarter and was forced to exit shortly thereafter, after being in noticeable pain while the Cardinals marched up the field for a touchdown. Ogletree, the Rams' leader in defensive snaps heading into the game, intercepted a pass and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown to give the Rams an early 16-0 lead. Bryce Hager took his place as inside linebacker and signal-caller for the rest of the defense.

"Right now, it's looking up to be ready for next week," Ogletree said after the game, with ice wrapped around his injured elbow. "We'll see what they say tomorrow. I'll find out tomorrow, for sure, what it's going to be. But right now, it's just going to take a lot of treatment."

Quotable: Trumaine Johnson, the Rams' sixth-year cornerback: "This was a special game. I know it’s only the 12th game, but it’s a special game. We’re 9-3, so it’s big. But we’re still hungry, and we’ve got a big game coming up."

What's next: The Rams will play their biggest game of the year, at home against a first-place Eagles team that is 10-2. It'll be Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, against Carson Wentz, who went second. It'll be McVay against the Eagles' Doug Pederson, two favorites for NFL Coach of the Year honors. And it'll be two stout defenses matching up. The Rams will be tested like they haven't been this season.

Said Gurley: "You play for games like this."