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Todd Gurley and the Rams

Todd Gurley and the Rams

Not only did the Los Angeles Rams finish first in the NFC West with an 11-5 record in 2017, but the team also swept our postseason awards, as chosen by NFL Nation NFC West reporters Alden Gonzalez (Rams), Brady Henderson (Seahawks), Nick Wagoner (49ers) and Josh Weinfuss (Cardinals).

Coach of the Year: Sean McVay, Rams

Considering that McVay is the favorite to be the NFL Coach of the Year, it was a no-brainer that he would earn that honor for the NFC West division. McVay was a unanimous choice here, and why wouldn’t he be? All McVay, who at 30 was the youngest head coach in modern league history at the time of his hire, did in his first season was lead one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent memory. He took a team that was 4-12 and dreadful offensively a year ago and turned it into a supercharged juggernaut that went 11-5 and won the NFC West. McVay’s influence was most evident in the offense, taking a group that averaged a league-low 14 points per game in 2016 and turning it into a unit (with some key additions at receiver and on the offensive line) that posted 29.9 points per game in 2017. It was the first time in the Super Bowl era an offense went from worst to first in one year.

“It’s just everything he’s done since he got here,” Rams quarterback Jared Goff told reporters of McVay’s impact. “From Day 1, it’s been so impressive. He hasn’t changed a bit. Same demeanor every day and goes about his business the same way, and I think it rubs off on the players and rubs off on me, for sure.”

Along the way, McVay helped Goff erase any premature bust labels and helped running back Todd Gurley emerge as a legitimate MVP candidate. — Wagoner

Offensive Player of the Year: Todd Gurley, RB, Rams

A lot happened when Gurley sprinted 57 yards to the end zone against the Seahawks in Week 15. That score gave Gurley’s Rams a 34-0 lead, putting out of reach a game that gave Los Angeles a viselike grip on the NFC West title. And as Gurley raced past Seattle’s defense for his third of four touchdowns that December afternoon, he also thrust himself into the MVP conversation. Gurley led the NFL with 2,093 scrimmage yards, despite sitting out Week 17 with the division already clinched. He finished second in rushing (1,305) and receiving yards (788) among running backs after being edged out in both categories on the final day. Gurley’s 19 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns were five more than any other player.

“He’s really the centerpiece,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Gurley, whose stats might be good enough for him to become the first non-quarterback to win league MVP since Adrian Peterson did it in 2012 with the Vikings.

“That was the last time a back won the MVP, and this year should be the next time,” Rams center John Sullivan, a teammate of Peterson that season, told ESPN.com. “Who knows how it will play out, but look, Todd is the best back in the league. And that’s what Adrian was at that time.” — Henderson

Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald, DT, Rams

Donald missed the first regular-season game, sat out the last one and spent an entire summer in a contractual holdout. He still led the league in pressures and led defensive tackles in sacks, and he might just win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said Donald is “obviously the best defensive player in the league,” so of course he was voted the best defensive player in the NFC West this season.

“He’s not superhuman,” Phillips said, “but he’s almost unstoppable.”

Despite facing constant double- and triple-teams, Donald registered a career-high-tying 11 sacks in 14 games. (He would’ve had a 12th in Week 16, but the NFL took it away because Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota picked up his own fumble and ran with it.) Donald’s 91 pressures were more than any other player, according to Pro Football Focus, even though it’s significantly more difficult to pressure the quarterback from between the tackles. In a first-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Donald registered a season-high 11 pressures, 10 of which came in the first half.

“We’ve never seen anybody pressure the quarterback as much as he does,” Rams edge rusher Matt Longacre said of his teammate. — Gonzalez

Rookie of the Year: Cooper Kupp, WR, Rams

Hollywood wasn’t too big for Kupp. The small-school wide receiver shined as bright as any movie premiere as a rookie for the Rams, who selected Kupp in the third round out of Eastern Washington. Kupp, who played alongside the likes of Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, led the Rams in receiving with 869 yards. He also led the team with 95 targets and converted a team-high 42 first downs. He was counted on by Goff and McVay from the onset of his rookie season, running 24 routes in his debut in Week 1, which resulted in four catches for 76 yards and a touchdown. He ran 425 routes in 2017, the second most on the Rams.

But Kupp’s impact wasn’t limited. He was second on the team in receptions, yards after catch and receiving yards after contact.

“Regardless of where you come from, I believe in myself coming into this and being able to play at this level, so it’s obviously great being able to help produce. But I think just being a part of this team, having coaches that put you in the right position players alongside you that make this game easy,” he said.

Kupp, who had five touchdown catches, was consistent throughout the season, with at least two catches in every game. His biggest games of the year came down the stretch. He had 116 yards on a career-high eight catches in a Week 12 win over the New Orleans Saints. Two weeks later, in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, he set a career high with 118 yards, complemented by a touchdown, on five catches. That included a 64-yard reception — the longest of his career. — Weinfuss

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SEATTLE — The Los Angeles Rams were a broken team the last time they played here, on Dec. 15, 2016. They were without a head coach and without a direction, their season fading to black while uncertainty surrounded both their quarterback and their future.

Sunday, 367 days after an uninspiring defeat from CenturyLink Field on national television, marked the unofficial completion of the Rams’ breathtaking turnaround. Amid gray skies and waning interest, they slayed the mighty Seattle Seahawks with a 42-7 dismantling and all but wrapped up a division title along the way.

Todd Gurley scored four of five Rams touchdowns and Aaron Donald recorded three of seven sacks on elusive Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who was brought down more often than he had been all season. The Rams are 10-4 now, an eternity removed from the 10 straight losing seasons they carried into 2017. They lead the Seahawks by two games in the NFC West with only two games remaining, their chances of at least hosting a playoff game now a probable outcome.

“Everything has changed,” Rodger Saffold, the Rams’ eighth-year offensive lineman, said. “Just the way this team plays; the way they feel.”

Through 14 weeks, the Rams were undoubtedly the best team in their division.

On the 15th week, they needed only the first two quarters to prove that definitively.

Before halftime, Gurley rushed for 144 yards — the most by any player in the first half this season — and Donald recorded six pressures. Thanks to their defense, which held the Seahawks to 59 yards on their first 27 plays, and Pharoh Cooper, who picked up 109 yards on his first four punt returns, the Rams began five first-half drives within enemy territory and went into the locker room with a 34-0 lead that was never threatened.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff said it “seemed like we were on the 50-yard line every time we went out there.”

The Rams lost to the Seahawks at home earlier this year, but they outgained them by 134 yards and were done in by five turnovers, most of which they could’ve easily avoided.

“We felt like we did not play to the capabilities that we thought were possible when we played them the last time, and I think there was a lot of anger between us,” Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We really just felt very disappointed in ourselves in how we played the first time we played them, and really had a bunch of opportunities to win that game and just didn’t. I think that meant a lot to us to really have that opportunity and go get it. I think guys felt that all week. There was an emotion behind that all week, and it showed today.”

The Rams started the game by forcing an opening-drive turnover for the seventh time this season, using a Tanner McEvoy fumble to set up a field goal. A Seahawks three-and-out led to a second field goal by Greg Zuerlein, who is on pace for a scoring record. Cooper returned Seattle’s second punt 53 yards to the 1-yard line, paving the way for an easy touchdown run by Gurley. Cooper returned another one 26 yards, sparking a five-play, 36-yard drive that ended in another one-yard run by Gurley.

The Seahawks finally reached Rams territory at the seven-minute mark of the second quarter. But Wilson lost 13 yards on the ensuing play and fumbled the football, setting up another touchdown drive that ended in a 1-yard pass from Goff to Robert Woods, who had missed the previous three games with a sprained left shoulder.

After the Seahawks punted for the fifth time of the first half, Gurley sealed it. He took a handoff to the left and zipped past the entire Seahawks defense, sprinting 57 yards untouched for the 16th of his NFL-leading 17 touchdowns this season.

“We didn’t want to let up,” Gurley said. “These guys have been kicking our ass for the last 10, 15 years. You have to enjoy it. You have to take advantage of the situation.”

Gurley recorded the first four-touchdown game in the NFL since 2015 with a 14-yard reception in the flat with more than 22 minutes remaining.

By the final seconds of the third quarter, CenturyLink Field — a house of horrors for many an NFL team this decade — was half full and stunningly quiet. By the fourth, the Rams had pulled most of their starters from a game that had quickly become more contentious than competitive.

The Seahawks have made five consecutive trips to the playoffs and have won the NFC West three out of the past four seasons. But the Rams, who have yet to lose back-to-back games this season, can now clinch a division title with their next win or Seahawks loss. The Rams were 4-12 in 2016 and last in every important offensive category in what became Jeff Fisher’s final year as their head coach. But now they lead the NFL in point differential and sit as the No. 3 seed in their conference.

It’s been one year since their last trip to Seattle, but everything is different now.

“That definitely feels like a while ago,” Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner said. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

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Los Angeles Rams

Los Angeles Rams

After a 4-12 finish last year, the Los Angeles Rams are in the midst of an eye-popping turnaround with a 7-2 this season. One big reason for that is quarterback Jared Goff’s rebound from an abysmal rookie campaign.

He’s revived his career this season — throwing for 2,385 yards to go along with 16 touchdown and only four interceptions in nine games.

He posted a 63.6 passer rating in seven games last season. That’s up to a 101.5 rating this year, the second-largest improvement over two seasons in NFL history, according to NFL research.

Those numbers are no accident. The 23-year-old is playing with confidence and authority under new head coach Sean McVay — traits you didn’t see when Jeff Fisher was in Goff’s ear. He’s playing the best football of his career so far, and spurring the Rams’ playoff push.

Goff has reinvigorated Los Angeles’ offense by successfully taking shots down field, spreading the ball around to a newly loaded group of playmakers, and by avoiding back-breaking turnovers.
The deep pass is working for Goff

Last season, Goff only completed four deep passes (20 yards or more) on 205 total attempts in his seven starts. This season, prior to the Rams’ Week 10 matchup against the Houston Texans, Goff held a 104.7 deep passer rating, which is 10th-best among quarterbacks —according to Pro Football Focus. He was 2-for-3 on deep shots last week against the Texans.

He’s completed nine passes this season that traveled 40 yards or more through the air, which is tied for a league-high. The Rams’ offensive line, anchored by left tackle Andrew Whitworth, a free agent addition last spring, has done a great job of providing clean pockets. Whitworth has five games this season where he hasn’t allowed a single pressure to get to his quarterback, including the last two weeks. Goff has only been sacked 13 times in nine games.

When the Rams’ offensive line gives Goff ample time to survey the field and make throws, he’ll take shots down the field. Just watch this 94-yard touchdown pass to Robert Woods last week.

Woods ran a post route and made cornerback Johnathan Joseph look silly.

Woods told ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez that “it’s probably my longest play in NFL, college, high school — ‘Madden,’” Woods said. “It was a big play.”

Goff is willing to target any player who runs a deep route. If that player is able to create separation, Goff will rifle a pass in his direction. Just ask Sammy Watkins, who burned the New York Giants with this 67-yard touchdown pass in Week 9.

Goff launched this pretty pass, which traveled 60 yards through the air, to Watkins — who galloped past Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Landon Collins with ease.

The Rams have players who can make big plays at any moment. And what makes Goff’s play impressive this season is that he wants to get everyone involved on splash plays.
Spreading the ball around

Los Angeles’ offense ranks in the top 10 in nearly every statical category. This team averages a league-high 32.9 points per game. What’s fascinating about this passing attack is everyone gets in on the action.

Back in October, McVay told Rich Hammond of The Orange County Register that they do not focus on targeting one player on offense.

“When you do have the variety of skill players that we have, you don’t want to just force-feed a guy,” McVay said. “So I think that enables us to be able to spread the field and use everybody.”

In nine games this season, Goff completed at least one pass to an average of 7.3 different players a game. If you’re not convinced, look at how well he spread the ball around in the Rams’ blowout victory against the Giants in Week 9.

You never know who will make a big play on this offense. It could be veteran players like Watkins, Woods, or … Tavon Austin.

Woods told Gonzalez that “this offense has so many weapons.”

“A lot of people are touching the ball,” Woods said. Austin agreed with Woods, saying “that’s the good thing about this offense.”

But opposing defenses also have to keep eyes on rookie tight end Gerald Everett and rookie receiver Cooper Kupp. In fact, New York underestimated Everett — and Goff made them pay with this 44-yard throw.

McVay has done a masterful job of surrounding Goff with talent. Goff no longer has to stare down one target and risk the possibly turning the ball over — something he hasn’t done a lot this season.
Cutting back on the mistakes

When Goff was under center for the Rams in his rookie season, every drive was a disaster waiting to happen. He committed nine turnovers in 2016, including seven interceptions in seven games.

However, Goff only amassed five turnovers so far this season, only four of those being interceptions. He has fewer turnovers than quarterbacks like Matt Ryan (11), Ben Roethlisberger (11), Carson Wentz (7), and Dak Prescott (6). Goff played mostly mistake-free football in six games and hasn’t committed a turnover over the past two games.

After the Rams defeated Houston in Week 10, McVay praised Goff’s decision making during the post-game press conference.

“He continues to gain a grasp of exactly what we’re trying to get done — the intent of the playcalls, being that extension of the coaching staff,” McVay said.

“We threw it a lot today. And when he didn’t turn over the football over at all, that’s big-time. And you feel very comfortable and confident to be able to put the game in his hands, and he’s shown why.”

Thanks to Goff’s tour de force performances this season, the Rams sit atop of the NFC West at 7-2. Los Angeles won six of its last seven matchups and the last three games by a combined score of 117-24. They own the league’s best point differential at +134 this season.

The Rams are in great position to clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2004, and Goff is steering the team in the right direction.