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Giving thanks for an off week, Rams could clinch division without playing

Giving thanks for an off week, Rams could clinch division without playing
Rams quarterback Jared Goff celebrates at the end of the game against the Chiefs at the Coliseum. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Rams waited longer than any team other than the Kansas City Chiefs for their scheduled off week.

And after defeating the Chiefs in a wild 54-51 victory on “Monday Night Football,” they were eager to relax.

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“Perfect timing, to come off a game like that,” linebacker Mark Barron said.

Safety John Johnson was similarly pleased.

“Just go home, rest up, see our families — perfect,” Johnson said. “It’s Thanksgiving. We can all eat and just enjoy it.”

And then?

“Recover,” receiver Brandin Cooks said, “and don’t forget that we’re back at it the next week.”

The Rams, 10-1 and atop the NFC West, do not play again until Dec. 2 at Detroit. By that time, they could be division champions for the second year in a row.

If the Seattle Seahawks lose to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Carolina, the Rams will win back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1978-79.

Another division title, whether secured Sunday or in the coming weeks, appears a foregone conclusion for a team that won its first eight games, rebounded from a 45-35 defeat at New Orleans, and weathered two tumultuous weeks of off-the-field tragedies in Thousand Oaks, a training trip to Colorado and a late game-location change.

So coach Sean McVay also is ready for a break.

“Any time that you’re really rolling for … 11 straight weeks, you’re like, ‘All right, it’s about time to get a little bit of a rest,’ ” McVay said. “I’m kind of looking forward to just being a fan of football this week.”

As he watches other teams on television, McVay is certain to be contemplating possible scenarios, considering new ideas for plays and making mental notes.

“There are so many different things we can get better at,” he said.

The Rams are one of the NFL’s most physically sound teams — and they figure to get stronger if cornerback Aqib Talib achieves his goal of returning from an ankle injury in time for the game against the Lions. Talib has appeared fit while performing agility drills on the sideline before the last two games.

Other than the loss of receiver Cooper Kupp because of a season-ending knee injury, the Rams’ weekly injury report has been devoid of major problems.

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Quarterback Jared Goff has taken every significant snap and has passed for 26 touchdowns, with six interceptions, for a team that ranks second in offense and third in scoring.

Running back Todd Gurley suffered what McVay described as a mild ankle sprain against the Chiefs, but with an open date this week and another week to heal and prepare for the Lions, the reigning NFL offensive player of the year is expected to be ready for Week 13.

Josh Reynolds showed against the Chiefs that he can step in and produce in Kupp’s place, giving Goff another reliable target to go with Cooks and Robert Woods.

Tight ends Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee have produced touchdowns and other key plays of late.

In 2017, the Rams started the same five offensive linemen in every game except the season finale, when McVay rested nearly all offensive and defensive starters for the playoffs. The Rams are on track to repeat the feat.

Talib’s return should help a defense that ranks 21st in total defense and 23rd in scoring defense. The Rams gave up massive amounts of yardage against the Saints, Seahawks and Chiefs, but forced five turnovers in Monday night’s victory.

Tackle Aaron Donald has a league-best 14½ sacks, 3½ more than he had last season when he was the NFL defensive player of the year.

Edge rusher Dante Fowler supplanted Matt Longacre at one outside linebacker spot against the Chiefs, and outside linebacker Samson Ebukam stepped up and made three huge plays, two that directly resulted in touchdowns and one that caused an interception.

Barron appears to be back to full speed after sitting out the first four games because of an Achilles issue. Middle linebacker Cory Littleton, though challenged in coverage the last few weeks, has emerged as a standout.

Talib’s return will take pressure off cornerback Marcus Peters and enable Troy Hill and Sam Shields to return to rotational roles. Peters struggled for much of the season but played better in Week 10 against the Seahawks and intercepted a pass against the Chiefs, his former team.

Pro Bowl kick returner Pharoh Cooper played against the Chiefs after sitting out nine games while recovering from ankle surgery. Punter Johnny Hekker displayed his Pro Bowl form with a 68-yard kick that forced the Chiefs to start their final ill-fated drive deep in Rams territory. And Pro Bowl kicker Greg Zuerlein has made 16 of 18 field-goal attempts.

The Rams have remaining games against the Lions, Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers.

The ability to overcome small setbacks has been a characteristic of Rams players the last two seasons, McVay said.

“As a result of them dealing with those minor adversities in the right ways, we’ve avoided the big adversity,” he said, “and that’s something that we hope to continue to do moving forward.”

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