The season’s second-half landscape looks and apparently feels different for the Rams.
In each of the last two seasons, coach Sean McVay’s teams were positioned atop the NFC West or in second place going into the final eight games.
That was not the case Monday when players returned to work after a week off.
The Rams are 5-3 and in third place in the division heading into a road game Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers, with an 8-0 record, are the NFL’s only unbeaten team. The Seattle Seahawks are 7-2. Both teams defeated the Rams.
McVay and his players did not sound concerned.
They said they were focused on the Steelers. Left unsaid: Opportunity remains for a third consecutive division title, a playoff run and a return to the Super Bowl.
“This league has so many ebbs and flows,” McVay said during a news conference in Thousand Oaks, adding, “So much can be changed in the eight weeks.”
The Rams did not wait for the second half to make major changes to their roster.
Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, acquired in headline-grabbing trades in March 2018, were dealt late last month in a span of 14 days.
In between those deals, the Rams traded for star cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
And rookies David Edwards and Taylor Rapp stepped into starting roles in place of offensive lineman Joe Noteboom and safety John Johnson, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries.
“There is a different just personnel feel to it,” McVay said.
The Rams’ season appeared on the verge of possible collapse a few weeks ago. Then they defeated the woeful Atlanta Falcons and the winless Cincinnati Bengals.
“We’re on a little bit of a hot streak right now,” linebacker Samson Ebukam said Monday in the locker room, “so we’re going to see if we can keep it going.”
The schedule is tougher in the next eight weeks. Five of the Rams’ remaining opponents have records of .500 or better.
After they play the Steelers (4-4), the Rams play a “Sunday Night Football” game against the Chicago Bears (3-5) and then a “Monday Night Football” game against the Baltimore Ravens (6-2). Division games on the road against the Arizona Cardinals (3-5-1) and at home against the Seahawks follow.
The Rams then play road games against the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys (5-3) and the 49ers. The Rams conclude the season at home against the Cardinals.
Last season, the Rams won their first eight games en route to a 13-3 record.
“It’s a different feeling any time that you’re able to get all the results that you want at this point in the season — that’s a good feeling,” McVay said. “But I think that part of the moments that we’ve gone through, some of the adversity, has definitely helped strengthen us and, hopefully, we’ll see that pay dividends.”
Despite the losses — of games and players — the Rams could get stronger in several areas during the second half of the season.
Linebacker Clay Matthews, sidelined for three games because of a broken jaw, is expected to be on the practice field this week as he and the Rams assess when he might return, McVay said.
Backup running back Malcolm Brown, who has sat out the last two games because of an ankle injury, might return this week.
But wide receiver Brandin Cooks’ status remains uncertain.
Last week, Cooks met with a specialist in Pittsburgh regarding concussions, McVay said. Cooks suffered his second concussion of the season in the Rams’ victory over the Bengals. He also suffered a concussion last season against the Seahawks and in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2017 season while playing for the New England Patriots.
Cooks remains in the concussion protocol, a team official said. He was not present in the locker room during the 45-minute period open to the media.
“We’re not going to do anything to put him in harm’s way,” McVay said. “That’s the No. 1 priority ... not only with Brandin but with all of our players.
“And we’ll be very smart with how we ease him back into this whenever that time comes if that’s the decision we make.”
The Rams signed linebacker Dakota Allen to the practice squad. The Rams selected Allen in the seventh round of April’s draft, but he did not make the roster at the end of training camp. Allen signed with the Oakland Raiders but was waived last week after the trade deadline.