The Los Angeles Rams were 3-1 last season.
Weird, right? If you didn’t remember that, you’re forgiven. By the time they finished a 4-12 season, with two losses to the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers, any memories of a few wins early were so old that it seemed like Jim Everett was the quarterback for them. But yes, that terrible, boring Rams team did start 3-1.
Now the Rams are 3-1 again and generating buzz. Are we being fooled again?
This time it seems different. The foundation is more secure. Here are five reasons the Rams aren’t going away:
1. The schedule: Did you watch the 49ers-Cardinals game? If you did, you know neither of those teams is good. The Rams have three games left against them. The Seahawks are at least a little suspect too. The Rams play the AFC South this season, and that’s the easiest draw they could get. The schedule isn’t the easiest in the league, but there’s still a clear path to double-digit wins.
2. The defense could still improve: If there was optimism for the Rams this season, it was their talent on defense and a great new coordinator in Wade Phillips. The Rams defense has been mostly bad so far. Maybe the personnel just doesn’t fit Phillips’ scheme. But I feel OK betting on Phillips, one of the greatest defensive coordinators we’ve seen. I don’t think he forgot how to coach football this season.
3. The Rams suddenly have playmakers: Seeing Todd Gurley in an offense that looks like it’s from this century reminded us he was an elite prospect and an offensive rookie of the year. Sammy Watkins is always an injury risk, but he’s the Rams best receiver in a long time. Robert Woods was overpaid, but a better No. 2 receiver than the Rams have had in a long time. The Rams also made an enormous upgrade at left tackle with Andrew Whitworth. We’ll get to the coaching and the quarterback, but they also have far more to work with than recent Rams teams had.
4. They have a quarterback: Case Keenum led last season’s 3-1 start. If you’re not totally sold on Jared Goff yet, that’s fine. But even the biggest skeptic has to admit he’s far better than Keenum, a career journeyman. And honestly, there’s no real reason to believe Goff isn’t at least capable. I wondered, like most people, if Goff was a bust in the making after last season. As it turns out, he was just stuck with a horrendous coaching staff that could mess up a cup of coffee. Speaking of …
5. They have a coach: Who knows, maybe Sean McVay is Josh McDaniels, The Sequel. McDaniels, a young offensive whiz, started 6-0 as Broncos head coach. Remember that? Probably not, because he went 5-17 after that. So it’s not wise to put McVay into Canton yet. But just like the Keenum-Goff comparison, everyone understands he’s an upgrade over Jeff Fisher. You can see the creativity on offense, and that’s why they’re leading the NFL at 35.5 points per game. There are none of the other warning signs like there were with McDaniels, who alienated most of the Broncos’ locker room almost immediately after taking the job. Maybe McVay falls apart, but there’s no reason to believe he will.
Perhaps the Rams lose to the Seahawks this week and start to fall apart, like they did last season. Losing is embedded in their DNA. But there are signs this is different. Maybe they’re not ready to compete for a Super Bowl yet, but the signs of improvement are unmistakeable. It wasn’t a surprise when the Keenum-Fisher Rams faded last season. It would be a surprise if these Rams went away so easily.
Here are the power rankings after Week 4 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-4, Last week: 32)
I realize they were dealing with significant injuries on Sunday and this is still a work in progress. Still, they trailed 31-0 at home to an 0-3 Bengals team. And they haven’t been competitive since Week 1 against Pittsburgh, and they trailed by 11 in the fourth quarter of that game. I’ve said often that Hue Jackson needs four or five years regardless of results, but this is getting a bit dire.
31. San Francisco 49ers (0-4, LW: 31)
What happened to the offense that scored 39 points against the Rams? That was the third straight hard-fought, close game the 49ers lost. That can get disheartening in a hurry.
30. Indianapolis Colts (1-3, LW: 29)
The Jacoby Brissett trade will turn out to be a nice win for the Colts. There was talk they might cut Phillip Dorsett, and instead they traded him for a young quarterback with good upside. He’s not perfect by any means, but there are times you can see potential. I’m not sure why the Patriots traded him with Jimmy Garoppolo about to hit free agency.
29. New York Jets (2-2, LW: 30)
So were we just wrong on the Jets? Did they happen to catch two tired teams at home? (The Dolphins played in Los Angeles before playing the Jets and were on their way to London; the Jaguars played in London the week before.) I’m not sure but as I said in Winners and Losers, it seems like the Jets aren’t this good and they’re going to win just enough to blow a shot at one of the top quarterbacks in the 2018 draft.
28. Los Angeles Chargers (0-4, LW: 25)
I feel for Anthony Lynn. The Chargers’ new coach couldn’t have thought that his team wouldn’t have one home game this season. Or next season. Or the few seasons after that. It’s amazing how bad the Chargers and the NFL botched the move from San Diego to Los Angeles. This never should have been allowed to happen. Now the Chargers are stuck in a city that obviously doesn’t want them and they have no home-field advantage at all.
27. New York Giants (0-4, LW: 26)
I’ll admit, I was totally wrong on the Giants. I thought the defense would be great again and the offense would be good enough. The defense has been OK, and the offense has been spotty. Now we have to start wondering if Ben McAdoo can save his job. (But it’s still tough to rank them and the Chargers this low, because to be honest, we all know neither team is this bad.)
26. Chicago Bears (1-3, LW: 27)
It made sense to go with Mitch Trubisky for Week 5, but if we’re being honest, it made sense to go with him in Week 1. What’s not ideal is giving Trubisky his first start against a tough Vikings defense, but the Bears are better off not waiting any longer.
25. Miami Dolphins (1-2, LW: 23)
Maybe this team would have been better off just letting Matt Moore start at quarterback. Couldn’t have been much worse.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (1-3, LW: 28)
Joe Mixon had 29 yards on 17 carries against a Browns defense that was missing three key pieces in the front seven. Everything else on Sunday was positive, and you have to believe Mixon will get it going. He’s too talented not to.
23. Baltimore Ravens (2-2, LW: 22)
The Ravens fell behind early, so I understand they got knocked off their game script. Still, a nine-carry, 82-yard stat line for Alex Collins is silly. If he doesn’t get 20 carries next week for this toothless offense, something is wrong. He looks pretty good.
22. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2, LW: 15)
From our good friend Eric Edholm: From 6:06 in the second quarter until the end of overtime against the Jets, Blake Bortles was 8 of 23 for 59 yards and an interception. Bortles missed his final nine passes. Chad Henne isn’t good, but it’s time to try. They might be wasting an otherwise good team this season. No offense to the Jets, but the Jaguars team we saw in Weeks 1 and 3 should not be losing to them.
21. New Orleans Saints (2-2, LW: 24)
Alvin Kamara is really talented (if we’re choosing right now, do you still take Christian McCaffrey, the eighth pick of the draft, over third-rounder Kamara? Probably, but it’s no slam dunk either). The next question is, at what point does he start taking carries from Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson? He has only 15 carries, but 83 yards. And we’ve seen how explosive he is with the ball in his hands from his 20 catches. You have to assume more work is coming.
20. Arizona Cardinals (2-2, LW: 18)
We have seen teams just shed their skin and look entirely different from week to week, so maybe the Cardinals will do that. But aside from part of one half against the Cowboys, the Cardinals have looked bad this season. They should have lost at home Sunday to the 49ers. Perhaps it’s possible they stay in the hunt and then David Johnson returns and saves the day, but that seems like some wishful thinking.
19. Tennessee Titans (2-2, LW: 9)
That performance Sunday was pathetic. They had their shot to make a statement in the AFC South. They made a statement, all right. It wasn’t a good one. And now they have to worry about Marcus Mariota’s health.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1, LW: 19)
It will be interesting to see how Doug Martin gets reincorporated into the offense. It seems like it would be nice to have his fresh legs in a Thursday night game. It feels like the Bucs won’t ease him in.
17. Minnesota Vikings (2-2, LW: 11)
With Dalvin Cook out for the season, it just seems like we’re going to be getting the 2016 Vikings all over again. And that’s if Sam Bradford comes back soon. Cook’s injury was brutal for a promising team.
16. Oakland Raiders (2-2, LW: 6)
Obviously the only thing that matters is how quickly Derek Carr can get back and be effective. Will he really be back after missing just two games? What if it’s six? We saw last season what happens when Carr isn’t in the lineup, and it’s bad. The Raiders could come back from 2-4 if Carr returns then. They couldn’t come back from 2-8 or 3-7 or whatever EJ Manuel could lead them to. It’s impossible to rank them fairly, because they’re probably in the bottom 5-10 teams as long as Carr is out. We’ll have to figure it out when he returns.
15. Buffalo Bills (3-1, LW: 21)
Who would you pick as coach of the year after four games: Sean McVay or Sean McDermott? Tough call. Both have done remarkable jobs so far.
14. Washington Redskins (2-2, LW: 14)
The Redskins defense has been very good to start the season, but they’ll miss cornerback Josh Norman. By halftime, ESPN’s Lisa Salters had reported that Norman’s rib injury might keep him out multiple weeks. Tough to lose a player like that.
13. Houston Texans (2-2, LW: 20)
I certainly didn’t expect Deshaun Watson to be this good right away. We have to entirely recalibrate the Texans now. Lamar Miller might not be facing eight in the box all the time anymore. DeAndre Hopkins won’t have to wonder why he’s never getting the ball. The defense doesn’t have to pitch shutouts to win. If Watson can play near the level he’s shown the past two weeks, maybe the Texans can be contenders to win the AFC. We all knew they just needed a quarterback.
12. Dallas Cowboys (2-2, LW: 8)
It’s early, but worth noting that Ezekiel Elliott’s yards per carry is down from 5.1 to 3.6. He’s on pace for 1,108 yards, way short of his league-leading 1,631 yards last season. There’s time to make it up, but it’s a concern. Remember, this isn’t the same Cowboys offensive line from a year ago.
11. New England Patriots (2-2, LW: 5)
I can go through all the possible reasons and theories and try to explain it, but if we’re being honest? It makes zero sense why the Patriots defense is suddenly this bad. It’s inexplicable. They’re on pace, after a quarter of the season, to give up the most yards in NFL history. And still, I know there’s no way they remain ranked this low for long.
10. Seattle Seahawks (2-2, LW: 12)
The Chris Carson injury stinks, because he is a fun player to watch, but you’d think the Seahawks are equipped to handle his absence. They have Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise and even J.D. McKissic made nice plays on Sunday night.
9. Los Angeles Rams (3-1, LW: 16)
Next week’s home game against the Seahawks will be really interesting. Win that, and they’ll lead the Seahawks by two games with a tiebreaker edge. Also, they would send a message that this fast start isn’t a mirage.
8. Carolina Panthers (3-1, LW: 17)
For all of the offensive issues early on including Greg Olsen’s injury, the Panthers are 3-1 with a win at the Patriots. And Cam Newton looked like the MVP Cam for most of Sunday’s win.
7. Detroit Lions (3-1, LW: 13)
It’s a good sign that the Lions won Sunday with Matthew Stafford and the offense having such a quiet day. I didn’t take them seriously enough heading into the season because of their crazy amount of wins in close games last season, but it looks like they will be in the NFC North race deep into the season.
6. Philadelphia Eagles (3-1, LW: 10)
The Eagles have a pretty deep offense. Three backs got 10 or more carries on Sunday. Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith had 38 yards combined, but Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor had solid games. The Eagles lead the defending NFC East champion Cowboys by a game, and it doesn’t seem like they’re going away anytime soon.
5. Denver Broncos (3-1, LW: 7)
I’m fairly shocked Jamaal Charles looks this good. Usually players don’t lose it, then find it again at age 30. Charles doesn’t exactly look like his prime form, but he’s clearly going to be a factor for the Broncos.
4. Green Bay Packers (3-1, LW: 3)
The good news is they’re 3-1 with a ton of injuries. The bad news is the injuries keep coming. The best-case scenario is they keep grinding out wins and have a really nice record by the time they get healthy. If they get healthy.
3. Atlanta Falcons (3-1, LW: 2)
When you lose your top two receivers, including the great Julio Jones, that game plan you spent 80 hours putting together during the week goes out the window. It’s hard to drop them too much, though losing to the Bills at home in any circumstance isn’t a good look for a Super Bowl hopeful. I’ll still bet on Atlanta being a top team by the end.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1, LW: 4)
Getting 35 carries in a game, as he did Sunday, isn’t in Le’Veon Bell’s best interest. Let’s just be honest about that. The Steelers didn’t give him a long-term contract and it seems unfair if their plan is to load him up with 400 carries (he also has a 27-carry game so far) without any thought to what it could do to his health and then let him go.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0, LW: 1)
That was a good win over the Redskins. If Washington is legit, and it looked that way Monday night, Kansas City’s wins include at New England, vs. Philadelphia and Washington. And they beat the Chargers, who are better than that 0-4 record. This is going to be a season defined by extreme parity, but right now having the Chiefs No. 1 is the only sure thing (well, that and having the Browns last).
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