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Rams are playoff contenders, but schedule gets tougher in second half of season

Cornerback Jalen Ramsey is a key part of the Rams' top-ranked defensive unit this season.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
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Multiple cross-country trips for games did not seem to bother them. A steady diet of weak NFC East opponents gave them confidence. And they appeared primed to finish the first half of their season with momentum.

Then the Rams traveled to Miami.

An embarrassing loss to the Dolphins left coach Sean McVay’s team limping psychologically into their week off.

They are 5-3 and still regarded as playoff contenders.

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Yet a team that began the season with the one of the youngest rosters in the NFL must now mature in the final eight games — and not only the rookies. The Rams, winners over only one team with a winning record in the first half of the season, play five games against tough NFC West opponents in the second half.

After Sunday’s loss at Miami, the Rams will use this week to recharge ahead of a difficult schedule in the second half of the season.

Unlike the previous two seasons, which featured headline-grabbing deals at the trade deadline, the Rams stood pat and let Tuesday’s deadline pass without making a move.

A look at where the Rams stand heading into the second half of the season:

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What’s working

Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery is caught from behind by Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald catches Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery from behind.
(John Cordes / Associated Press)

First-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley oversees a unit that ranks first in the NFL, giving up only 291.9 yards a game. The Rams are second in passing defense (197.1 yards per game), fourth in rushing defense (94.8 yards per game) and tied for third in scoring defense (19 points per game).

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Defensive lineman Aaron Donald has nine of the Rams’ 25 sacks and appears on pace for a run at a third NFL defensive player of the year award. The front should get stronger with the addition of tackle A’Shawn Robinson, who is expected to be active for a Nov. 15 game against the Seattle Seahawks at SoFi Stadium. Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd has played well, and rookie Terrell Lewis could be a factor in the second half. Though young and relatively inexperienced, inside linebackers Micah Kiser, Kenny Young and Troy Reeder have not been weak links. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey and safety John Johnson are leading a secondary that received big plays from cornerbacks Troy Hill and Darious Williams and safeties Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp.

The Rams rank eighth in total offense, averaging 396.4 yards per game. Before a four-turnover meltdown at Miami, quarterback Jared Goff performed efficiently as McVay kept him on the move with play-action passes and rollouts. The offensive line has mostly played well while leading the way for running backs Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown, who have shared most of the workload in a rushing attack that ranks seventh in the NFL. Will rookie running back Cam Akers and rookie wide receiver Van Jefferson have larger roles in the second half?

Punter Johnny Hekker is performing at an all-pro level.

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What’s not

Rams tight end Tyler Higbee runs with the ball against the San Francisco 49ers
Rams tight end Tyler Higbee hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since September.
(Tony Avelar / Associated Press)

The Rams are amassing yardage, but in a season in which scoring is up league-wide, they are lagging. The Rams are averaging 24.1 points a game, which ranks 21st in the NFL. In 2017, the Rams led the league in scoring at 29.9 points per game. They were second in 2018 at 32.9 points per game. Last season, they were 11th, averaging 24.6 points.

They also have not proven they can consistently defeat good teams. See losses to the Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins.

Though Goff did complete one long touchdown pass to wide receiver Robert Woods against Washington, the Rams do not have a proven deep threat. That was exposed again by a Dolphins defensive plan that dared the Rams to beat them deep.

Tight end Tyler Higbee caught three touchdown passes in a Week 2 win at Philadelphia. Goff has not connected with him in the end zone since then.

The decision to part ways with longtime kicker Greg Zuerlein is haunting the Rams. Rookie Samuel Sloman was released and replaced by veteran Kai Forbath, but Forbath’s near-whiff on a 48-yard field-goal attempt against the Dolphins will leave him in a competition with practice-squad kicker Austin MacGinnis.

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What’s next

Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey intercepts a pass intended for Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham
Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey intercepts a pass intended for Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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The Rams have the off week to rest, reflect and then regroup.

The time away from the field should help Ramsey. He did not play against the Dolphins because of an unspecified illness but was at the team’s facility this week. Henderson and Higbee, nursing quadriceps and hand injuries, respectively, also will benefit.

Offensive lineman Joe Noteboom returned from a knee injury last week, and Fuller is expected to return from a shoulder injury when the Rams play the Seahawks.

The Rams have non-division games remaining against the struggling New England Patriots (2-5), winless New York Jets (0-8) and Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2). They play the Seahawks (6-1) and Arizona Cardinals (5-2) twice and the 49ers (4-4) once in NFC West games.

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What about the division?

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson gestures down field while scrambling.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is looking like an MVP candidate this year.
(Stephen Brashear / Associated Press)

Every team is .500 or better.

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is making a run for his first most valuable player award. He has passed for 26 touchdowns, with six interceptions, for a team that averages a league-best 34.3 points a game. Coach Pete Carroll is known for defense, but the Seahawks rank last in the league in yards allowed.

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, the top pick in the 2019 NFL draft, has accounted for 20 touchdowns in his second season under coach Kliff Kingsbury.

The injury-ravaged 49ers defeated the visiting Rams 24-16 on Oct. 18. Now quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and tight end George Kittle could be out for extended periods because of injuries. That’s not bad news for the Rams. They host San Francisco on Nov. 29.