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Rams, eyeing a playoff run, are surprise story of NFL season

The Rams, by any measure, reached the midpoint of the NFL season ahead of schedule.

They are 6-2 and in first place in the NFC West under first-year coach Sean McVay. They lead the NFL in scoring with ascending quarterback Jared Goff and rank ninth in scoring defense with a unit led by relentless lineman Aaron Donald.

And they are positioned to make a run for their first playoff appearance since 2004.

“We’ve got a connected team right now,” McVay said Monday during a news conference in Thousand Oaks.

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Now the question: Can the Rams sustain this over the final eight games?

“You don’t want to get too ahead of yourself because this is long season,” veteran linebacker Robert Quinn said after Sunday’s 51-17 victory over the New York Giants. “There’s a lot of great teams out there, great players, and all it takes is one week and the snowball effect, and it can get ugly pretty fast.”

The Rams have plenty of experience with unsightly finishes.

Last season, they started 3-1 under former coach Jeff Fisher and then nosedived to a 4-12 finish.

An upgraded roster that includes dominating left tackle Andrew Whitworth and receivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins — and a culture change instituted by McVay and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips — makes a similar downward spiral improbable.

Instead, starting with Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans, the Rams will be focused on maintaining the momentum that has made them the surprise story of the NFL.

“Our team’s got a lot of confidence right now,” McVay said, “but we know that it’s a week-to-week business.”

In their last two victories — routs of the Arizona Cardinals and Giants — the Rams played complete games, performing well on offense, defense and special teams.

“We’ve been clicking on all three cylinders,” safety Lamarcus Joyner said.

And yet….

“There’s a handful of plays in all three phases that we feel like we could have made,” McVay said.

McVay pointed to his evolving game management skills as one area that can be improved.

But the Rams are doing most things well.

They are averaging 32.9 points a game. Goff is coming of a career-best four-touchdown performance against the Giants, running back Todd Gurley has scored a league-high 10 touchdowns.

Kicker Greg Zuerlein has made all but one of his 25 field-goal attempts and is the league’s leading scorer.

The point production is a welcome change for veteran defensive players, who had grown accustomed to shouldering the burden of playing with the league’s least productive offense.

“This is my first time being on a team like that, where the offense is doing what they want, literally,” sixth-year cornerback Trumaine Johnson said. “And it’s not just one game…. It’s really nice to see.”

The defense has played well since the second half of a Week 4 victory at Dallas.

The Rams forced two turnovers in a 33-0 victory over Arizona, three more against the Giants.

Quinn said those results are expected when playing in Phillips’ 3-4 defense.

“As a player, it’s simple but complicated,” he said of the scheme, “Or complicated but simple. Because there’s so many different looks we can give that can cause an offense trouble.”

The Rams are looking forward to playing the Texans at the Coliseum, their first home game since losing to the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 8.

They also have remaining home games against the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

The Rams, 5-0 away from the Coliseum, have remaining road games against the Minnesota Vikings, Cardinals, Seahawks and Tennessee Titans.

Linebacker Connor Barwin, who played for playoff teams in Houston and Philadelphia, said the Rams must continue getting better to sustain their fast start.

“The teams that win in the playoffs,” Barwin said, “are the teams that improve throughout the season.

“Whether you’re 6-2 or 4-4, the key is to improve every single week, and that’s what our goal needs to be.”

So far, Rams players have bought in. Barwin said the entire roster is pulling in the same direction with no individual selfishness.

“That’s, again, something you have to sustain through the whole season,” he said. “And that’s another challenge in itself when you start to have success.

“So those are things we’ll have to deal with that this team hasn’t had to deal with in the past.”

Etc.

The Rams waived receiver Bradley Marquez from injured reserve…. The Rams, off Tuesday, resume practice Wednesday.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein


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