Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts. Heavy turbulence ahead.
The Rams, maybe the NFL’s most surprising story at 7-2, are heading into the toughest stretch of their season. Five of their next six opponents have winning records, and that includes matchups against three of the league’s hottest teams: Minnesota, New Orleans and Philadelphia.
Their schedule unfolds like this: at Minnesota, New Orleans, at Arizona, Philadelphia, at Seattle, at Tennessee, San Francisco.
Even though the Rams are on pace to make the playoffs — more on that in a moment — this is a true litmus test, when they’ll discover just how good they are.
Naturally, it’s taboo for the players to publicly discuss anything but the now, and the Rams aren’t all that comfortable training the spotlight on opponents in general.
“Every opponent is faceless to us,” receiver Sammy Watkins said. “We just go out and try to dominate who’s in front of us.”
It should be noted, though, there are some Hollywood story lines coming up.
When they play at Minnesota on Sunday, there’s a good chance they’ll be facing Case Keenum, their quarterback in last season’s flop of a Los Angeles debut. Teddy Bridgewater will eventually be back at the controls for the Vikings, and he was activated Sunday for the first time since his devastating knee injury before the 2016 season. But Keenum threw four touchdown passes in Sunday’s 38-30 win at Washington. His team can’t pull the rug from under him now, right?
A week later, the Rams play host to the Saints, who are tied with Philadelphia for the league’s longest current winning streak at seven games. Rams-Saints is a coaching showdown between the two Seans, and L.A.’s McVay is like a younger version of New Orleans’ Payton.
What’s more, there are plenty of guys in that Rams locker room who remember last season’s humiliating 49-21 loss at New Orleans. The Saints didn’t take their foot off the gas in that, ostensibly looking to embarrass then Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was at the center of the Bountygate scandal in New Orleans.
With 10 minutes left and New Orleans leading by three touchdowns, the Saints rubbed the Rams’ noses in it with a trick play for a 50-yard touchdown. Again, that might have been a message to Williams, who’s in Cleveland now, but there are lots of remaining Rams who have that stored in their memory banks.
Saints-Rams is a candidate for “Sunday Night Football,” as is the Dec. 10 game against the Eagles at the Coliseum. That Philadelphia game pits quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the 2016 draft. Both have been scorching of late.
Sunday’s game was the 16th start of Goff’s career. He eventually replaced Keenum last season and the team went 0-7 with him at the helm down the stretch.
With a refashioned offensive line in front of him, a rebooted running back behind him, and a coach in his ear who clearly knows what he’s doing, Goff is a completely different quarterback. In fact, with the win over the Texans, he became the first Rams quarterback to string together consecutive games with at least 300 yards passing, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Goff was coy Sunday when asked about the bumpy schedule ahead.
“We’ve got Minnesota next week, right?” he said. “I don’t know who we’ve got after that.”
“New Orleans, Philadelphia …” the questioner said.
“Do we?” he responded, then paused. “I’m just messing with you.”
The players might be fixated on the moment, but you’d better believe there are people within the organization who are looking ahead. It doesn’t take much number crunching to chart a path to the postseason, where the Rams haven’t been since the 2004 season.
If they can get to 11 wins, the Rams can be reasonably sure they’ll make the playoffs. They should beat the Carson Palmer-less Cardinals and the 49ers (currently 1-9), which would put them at nine wins. Then, they would need to go at least 2-3 in the other five games.
Remember, this is a Rams team that’s 5-0 away from the Coliseum, counting the “home” game in London. If this team keeps playing to its capabilities, the Rams figure to be a formidable foe in every remaining game.
“The old adage is, as we get closer to Thanksgiving, those are some money games based on where you are in the standings,” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “But what Sean’s been unbelievable at is saying, ‘Our No. 1 goal, whether it’s September, October, November, December, is win the very next game.’ ”
That’s the most predictable part of McVay’s playbook. And it keeps working.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer