SANTA CLARA >> It’s much too early in the season to start talking about must-wins for the Rams. Conventional wisdom suggests no matter what happens when they play the San Francisco 49ers tonight, it won’t make or break their season in the grand scheme of things.
But viewed through the smaller lens of a young team and a young head coach trying to plant one sturdy footstep after another on their way to convocation, the 49ers offer a fascinating litmus test.
Two weeks into the season, it’s fair to presume the Rams are a better team than they were last year. It’s also fair to assume they know that better than anyone.
That was the prevailing sense upon observing them digest their disappointing loss to Washington on Sunday when, frankly, it was mostly self-inflicted wounds that caused their demise.
This wasn’t like last year when, deep down, the Rams understood losing was primarily the result of a talent and coaching disadvantage against most opponents. They’ve clearly narrowed the talent gap issue, and Sean McVay and his staff seem to have elevated the Rams’ scheme, adjustment and motivation game as well.
To the point they could honestly say Sunday that had they simply done — or avoided — X, Y and Z they could have easily beaten Washington. Which is a whole lot better than also having to add: “... and had a better left tackle and better wide receivers and a better designed offense and on and on and on.”
Which, let’s be honest, was far too often the case last year.
“We’ve got the weapons out there to make the plays – to make big plays and we get ourselves back in the game. I think it’s drastically improved,” quarterback Jared Goff said. “We now know that we’re never out of the fight and continue to keep going. As long as we execute and take care of the ball — good things will happen.”
You could sense that conviction just watching and listening to the Rams in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s loss.
“I think the guys feel it,” tackle Andrew Whitworth said.
But here’s the thing.
While it’s certainly empowering that the Rams know they are a more talented and better-coached team, there’s also no denying those two improved dynamics shift the burden of winning from the tangible to the intangible.
The Rams will take the field with most opponents as their peers.
That means success, most weeks, will rely on precision and execution and composure.
Which brings us to the litmus test being presented by the 49ers tonight at Levi’s Stadium.
On the surface, the Rams are the superior team. It’s debatable by how much, but from purely a talent standpoint, they are better.
But there are boxes the Rams have to check off if they are to leave the field with a win. And they go beyond just being the better team.
How do the Rams respond to their first loss of the season, especially one that was more their doing than Washington’s?
It’s a quick turnaround and a short work week going from a game on Sunday to one on Thursday.
It’s their first road game.
It’s a Thursday night, which often presents trouble for good teams with a veteran presence, let alone a young team trying to find its way like the Rams.
And it’s against a division rival that has beaten them three times in a row.
Those are a lot of dynamics to manage.
The Rams’ ability to command them will go a long way toward determining whether they head to Dallas next week to play the Cowboys with a 2-1 record rather than facing them with the prospect of falling into the sort of 1-3 hole that dooms football seasons.
“You can either fight the adversity and come back on a short week this week, go up Thursday night to San Francisco and play the way we know we can, or you can lay down,” Goff said. “Knowing the guys in that room, it’ll be the first. I think that we’re excited to face some adversity and get a chance to respond.”
It’s much too early to talk about must-wins for the Rams.
But when it comes to litmus tests, they face a big one tonight.