The anticipation and buildup began weeks ago, once it became clear that two strong teams with rising stars at quarterback would play a meaningful late-season game.
On Sunday, the Rams officially gave themselves permission to embrace the marquee matchup that is coming up next.
A 32-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium improved the Rams’ record to 9-3 and kept them atop the NFC West heading into a showdown with the NFC-East leading Philadelphia Eagles at the Coliseum.
The Eagles, led by quarterback Carson Wentz, were 10-1 going into their Sunday night game at Seattle. However, the Seahawks pumped the brakes on the NFL’s highest-scoring team in a 24-10 victory, halting Philadelphia’s nine-game winning streak.
“It’s going to be a great one,” Rams kick returner Pharoh Cooper said. “We got this win, so it’s going to make that game a lot more pumped up than what it already was.”
Jared Goff passed for two touchdowns, Alec Ogletree returned an interception for a score and Greg Zuerlein kicked four field goals in a victory that ensured the Rams’ first winning season since 2003 and moved them closer to clinching a playoff berth.
“To get the ninth win, for a lot of guys that have been here, to lock up a winning season … very happy for them,” said first-year coach Sean McVay, who has engineered the turnaround of a franchise that finished 4-12 last season and has not made the playoffs since 2004.
Veteran offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said the feeling between this season and the first he spent with the Rams was “as different as it possibly” could be. Running back Todd Gurley — who rushed for 74 yards in 19 carries and caught six passes for 84 yards — said he was most happy for Rams employees “behind the scenes”.
Defensive lineman Michael Brockers cautioned against getting too confident: “You don’t want to look at yourself like you’re good,” he said, “because once you’re good you can be humbled real quick.”
Now, veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said, the Rams are ready for the moment that awaits them against the Eagles.
“It’s understanding the magnitude of the fact that this is a measuring-stick game,” said Whitworth, who signed with the Rams after playing for several Cincinnati Bengals playoff teams. “I don’t think you really look at it as, ‘Hey this is the end-all, be-all.’
“You look at it as, ‘Hey, there’s another team that’s really successful. Here’s another team that’s on a roll and a team that’s looked to be one of the favorites.’”
Goff, chosen over Wentz with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, completed 21 of 31 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns to help the Rams sweep the Cardinals (5-7).
Goff was typically low-key after increasing his touchdown-pass total to 20, against six interceptions, and downplayed competing on the same stage with Wentz.
“It will be fun to play against him,” Goff said, “but I am more excited to play their team.”
A week after they ended the New Orleans Saints’ eight-game winning streak, the Rams traveled to Arizona for what Whitworth acknowledged had all the earmarks of “one of those major trap games.”
They had shut out the Cardinals 33-0 in Week 7 in London. Arizona was without quarterback Carson Palmer, who suffered a season-ending broken arm against the Rams. Future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson also was sidelined.
But quarterback Blaine Gabbert helped keep the Cardinals close most of the game.
The Rams led 19-13 at halftime on Goff’s touchdown pass to tight end Gerald Everett, Ogletree’s interception return and two Zuerlein field goals. They held off a threat and sealed the win with special teams.
Punter Johnny Hekker’s 70-yard punt and Cooper’s 30-yard punt return after the ensuing Cardinals series helped set up Goff’s touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins to put the Rams ahead 26-13.
The Cardinals pulled within 10 points on a long field goal, but Brockers blocked a 45-yard field-goal attempt early in the fourth quarter to stymie a comeback.
Two Zuerlein field goals sealed the victory.
McVay and his players said they would enjoy Sunday’s win and then turn their full attention to the Eagles.
“It’s going to exciting,” Brockers said. “Man, the challenge of somebody really good coming into our house ... We’re not going to blow it up more than it is.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein