Rams Super Bowl-or-bust season rests with its defense

Todd Gurley and the Rams have had a lot to celebrate this season. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams finished the first half of the season with an 8-1 record. Here's a look at how they have fared and what's ahead:

First-half rewind: The Rams lone loss came to the Saints in a shootout. Jared Goff has ascended the quarterback rankings and has proven himself as a leader under second-year coach Sean McVay. Todd Gurley is on a campaign to repeat as the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year, if not win the league's Most Valuable Player, as he leads the league in rushing yards and touchdowns. The defense has not looked exactly as the Rams envisioned after an offseason makeover, with cornerback Aqib Talib and outside linebacker Dominique Easley on injured reserve. But Aaron Donald is second in sacks (10) and the defense has come through with several last-minute stops. Grade: Near perfection.

What's the biggest factor in the Rams making a deep playoff run? The Rams have played in several close games this season that have come down to the final minutes (Vikings, Broncos, Seahawks, Packers, Saints). They've won four out of five of those games because of a big play in any of the three phases -- offense, defense and special teams. But as the Rams look to make a deep playoff run, they'll need to put together a more consistent effort through four quarters on offense and defense, and not let the outcome be determined in the final two minutes.

MVP: It's a close call between Goff and Gurley, but Gurley gets the nod. He has scored in 12 consecutive games, and even as opponents key in on slowing him, Gurley has proven to be unstoppable. The multidimensional running back leads the NFL with 868 yards rushing and has a league-high 16 touchdowns. And teammates won't stop talking about his unselfish play and willingness to set a block.

Biggest surprise: When the Rams' schedule was released, it was considered among the most difficult in the NFL, and ESPN's Football Power Index projected the Rams would win 9.4 games. Yet, the defending NFC West champions made it through the first eight undefeated, which included victories over the Chargers, Vikings and Packers. And, though their perfect season is no longer a possibility after a loss to the Saints, they're still posed to make a deep playoff run - possibly to the Super Bowl.

Hurdle to overcome: The Rams must play more consistently on defense. At times, they've been susceptible against the run and they've also been vulnerable in allowing explosive pass plays. The defensive linemen have each said they must play assignment football, and trust in their teammates. And, with the addition of edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. at the trade deadline, plus the pending return of Talib from injured reserve, the Rams' pass defense is in for a boost.