Column

Rams show they are ready for prime time with impressive victory over the Saints

The Rams aren’t just a headache for opponents anymore. They’ve become a problem — albeit the good kind — for the NFL.

In a season filled with hand wringing over sagging TV ratings, these upstart Rams have barged onto center stage and commanded the spotlight.

They posted a 26-20 victory over New Orleans in front of a national audience Sunday, knocking off a team that had won eight in a row in a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggests.

The issue for the NFL is how to reshuffle the lineup to give the Rams maximum exposure, while keeping the networks as happy as possible. More on this in a moment.

This much is clear: The Rams are a real contender, not some two-dimensional Hollywood set. They were 3-1 in the first quarter of the season, 3-1 in the second and will go 3-1 in the third if they win at Arizona next Sunday.

After each of their three losses this season, the Rams have bounced back with a win. They lost to Washington, then won at San Francisco four days later. They lost to Seattle, then rebounded with a win at Jacksonville. They were humbled at Minnesota, then came back strong against the Saints.

Just another check in Sean McVay’s column when it comes to picking a coach of the year.

“I don’t know how you could keep him out of the conversation,” Rams owner Stan Kroenke said after Sunday’s win. “[Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson] has done a great job, but they did better than we did last year.”

The 2016 Rams were unwatchable, an offensive Chernobyl and a defense that finally wore down after trying to carry the load week after week. These Rams have whipped a startling U-turn, with the best comparison being the out-of-nowhere “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams, who went on to win the Super Bowl after finishing 4-12 the season before.

Putting Rams and Super Bowl in the same sentence is crazy at this point. Philadelphia is the hottest team in the league, and the Vikings just posted a convincing victory over the Rams. But there’s no denying the standards have changed in the Los Angeles locker room.

The Rams weren’t delirious or even giddy after beating the Saints, which was by far the biggest win since the NFL returned to Los Angeles. It’s almost a non-issue that the franchise is now guaranteed its first non-losing season since 2006. Asked if that means anything to him, quarterback Jared Goff said: “No. We’ve got however many more left to make our goal and win the division and make the playoffs.”

Simple math says the Rams need to get to 11 wins to safely ensure themselves of a spot in the postseason. They’ve got games at Arizona and at home against San Francisco that they absolutely should win. If they were to take care of business against those teams, they would need to beat Philadelphia, Seattle or Tennessee to get to 11.

Now for the network politicking. The NFL is strongly considering flexing the Eagles-Rams in the Dec. 10 Sunday night slot currently occupied by Baltimore-Pittsburgh. That decision will be made early this week, and two big factors will come into play: One, how did Saints-Rams do in the ratings? And two, will 5-5 Baltimore stay relevant by beating Houston on Monday night?

At the end of the first month of the season, Fox and CBS are allowed to protect five of their remaining games from being flexed. Fox did not protect Eagles-Rams — who could have guessed it would be so compelling? — but now is fighting hard to retroactively protect it and make it their national showcase game.

Eagles-Rams is not the only game being considered as a flex candidate for that week, if Ravens-Steelers turns out to be something less than must-see TV. The league is also mulling moving Minnesota at Carolina into the Sunday night slot and keeping Eagles-Rams as the afternoon national game.

If the Rams don’t get a Sunday night game in two weeks, they’re also a flex consideration the next Sunday when they play at Seattle. The night game now slated for that Sunday is Dallas at Oakland, and both of those teams have losing records.

As for the Rams, they aren’t shrinking from the spotlight. They were unquestionably ready for their close-up Sunday.

“We want that respect,” linebacker Mark Barron said. “We want people to see what kind of team we are. Hopefully, everybody got to see today.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

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