It looks different, sounds different and, more than anything else, it feels different.
That was evident from the whooping, hollering and joking in the locker room on Sunday after the Rams defeated the Dallas Cowboys, 35-30, before a crowd of 91,869 at AT&T Stadium.
Greg Zuerlein kicked a team-record seven field goals, quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley led the offense, and the defense came together in the second half as the Rams improved to 3-1 and stayed atop the NFC West with a second consecutive road victory.
Not that anyone is getting too far ahead of themselves. The Rams learned the hard way last season when they started 3-1 under former coach Jeff Fisher, and then nosedived to 4-12.
But when asked if this year’s 3-1 feels different, players could barely contain themselves.
“Hell yeah!” defensive lineman Aaron Donald exclaimed, teammates joining in to echo the chorus.
After a season-opening victory over Indianapolis, a loss against Washington and a victory at San Francisco, there was good reason to question whether the Rams were for real. On Sunday, they showed they are not an illusion by making the Cowboys’ home their proving ground.
Rams running back Todd Gurley leaps over Cowboys defenders during a third-quarter drive.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald harasses Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott ,who escaped his grasp to complete pass during the third quarter.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rams players, including quarterback Jared Goff (16), celebrate as the Cowboys fail to finish a last-second drive, sealing a 35-30 win over Dallas.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rams linebacker Mark Barron intercepts a pass by Dak Prescott next to teammate Nickell Robey-Coleman.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rams receiver Cooper Kupp is upended after making a reception during a third-quarter drive.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Kicker Greg Zeurlein converts a 33-yard field goal, his seventh of the game, to give the Rams a 35-30 lead late in the fourth quarter.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rams kicker Greg Zeurlein and holder Johnny Hekker shake hands after Zeulein made a 33-yard field goal with two minutes left in the game against the Cowboys.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rams kicker Greg Zeurlein watches the ball split the uprights for one of his seven field goals against the Cowboys.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rams quarterback Jared Goff lofts a pass while under pressure from Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith during the first half.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rams kick returner Pharoh Cooper is upended by Cowboys defender Rod Smith during the first quarter.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson nearly pulls down an interception on a pass intended for Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, but drops the ball during first-half action.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott dives past Rams linebacker Mark Barron for a touchdown during the first half.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Punt returner Ryan Switzer fumbles the ball as he is tackled by Rams defenders Cory Littleton, left, and Blake Countess during second-quarter action.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Players warm up before the Rams and Cowboys played Sunday at ATT&T Stadium.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Through the first quarter of the season, first-year coach Sean McVay appears to have engineered a complete offensive makeover heading into next week’s game against the Seattle Seahawks at the Coliseum.
“You feel like you’re in a good position,” McVay said in a measured tone, “but there’s a lot of football to be played.”
The Rams are still a long way from contending for a playoff berth, something the franchise has not enjoyed since 2004. But they are making an early statement — and enjoying the moment.
There is no more obvious example than the broad smile Gurley wore after rushing for 121 yards and catching a team-best seven passes for 94 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown in the third quarter that put the Rams ahead to stay.
“When you’re winning, I’m telling you, it makes everything so much better,” he said.
Zuerlein was the difference against the Cowboys, converting three field goals in the first half and four in the second, including three in the fourth quarter.
“He won the game today,” McVay said of his kicker, who’s 14 for 14 on the season. “He’s Mr. Automatic.”
The Rams, the NFL’s worst offense the past two seasons, have scored at least 35 points in their victories. That has helped make up for the struggles of a defense that during the previous two games and the first half Sunday had trouble stopping the run.
The unit rallied in the second half against the Cowboys, holding off quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott with less than two minutes left to secure the victory.
“We still have work to do, but were building, and that’s the whole thing,” said linebacker Mark Barron, who intercepted a pass that set up a fourth-quarter field goal. “We continue to finish. As long as we do that we’ll be fine and we’ll continue to get better.”
Goff continued to show improvement with his second consecutive turnover-free performance. He completed 21 of 36 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns as the Rams overcame a 24-16 halftime deficit.
“It’s been fun so far,” Goff said, “and we look to continue it.”
Last season’s 3-1 start included a 9-3 victory over the Seahawks and consecutive road victories at Tampa Bay and Arizona. But Goff was on the bench behind journeyman Case Keenum, Gurley could not find running room and the receiving corps was undependable.
The Rams hired the 31-year-old McVay and then upgraded the offensive line and signed, drafted and traded for reliable receivers.They appear equipped to avoid a collapse like last season’s.
“It’s only the beginning,” Gurley said. “We’ve been here last year at 3-1 and only won one game after that so we got to keep that in mind as well. We’ve definitely got to keep moving forward and just get better every week and don’t get complacent.”
Said offensive lineman Jamon Brown: “Last year, we kind of escaped with wins. This year, we’re heading in the right direction.”
Safety Maurice Alexander said road victories over the 49ers and the Cowboys have produced confidence.
“You can tell from the vibe in the locker room,” he said.
Donald cautioned that there remains room for improvement. But there is no doubt this is different than last season.
“We keep playing like this, we can do some special things,” Donald said. “We have to keep it going.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein