You may not have noticed, but there's a third team of interest in the NFC West.
While the San Francisco 49ers were busy making Super Bowl plans, and the Seattle Seahawks were establishing themselves as one of the most rounded teams in the league, the St. Louis rams quietly went 7-8-1 in Jeff Fisher's first season.
Now it's time to take that crucial next step.
The Rams went 8-8 back in 2006, only to win three games the next season. They finished 7-9 in 2010 and responded with a stellar two-win campaign in 2011.
Let's look at the odds that they buck that trend.
A Playmaking Defense
Players like Aldon Smith and J.J. Watt rightfully get a lot of attention for their ability to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks, but does any team have a better pass-rushing defensive end combo than the Rams?
Chris "Yes, I'm Howie's son" Long racked up 11.5 sacks, while 22-year-old Robert Quinn tallied 10.5 in just his second year in the league. If that's not the best duo, it's certainly the most underrated.
Throw in William Quintin "Sea Breeze" Hayes (free agent), Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Michael Brockers, and it's not surprising that the Rams finished first in the NFL in sack percentage—a number likely to be repeated considering the youth of those just named.
The Rams have an equally promising cornerback tandem.
Cortland Finnegan is one of the most physical corners in the league, obviously, and he compiled three interceptions, nine pass deflections and 83 tackles in his first season in St. Louis.
On the other side, Janoris Jenkins made everyone forget about his character concerns with a four-interception, 14-pass deflection rookie season.
The duo also combined for five touchdowns.
Future Hall of Famer Steven Jackson's fate with the Rams may be up in the air, but even if he doesn't bring his all-around ability back to St. Louis, the team has backup options.
Darryl Richardson looked explosive in gaining 475 carries on 98 attempts—a dynamic 4.8 yards per carry, whereas Jackson had just 4.1—as a rookie. If Jackson returns, that's fine, but if he doesn't, the former Abilene Christian star appears up to the task of replacing him.
Also waiting in the wings is Isaiah Pead. He was drafted five rounds ahead of Richardson and only recorded 10 carries in 2012, but he's an intriguing young player with heaps of potential.
Help for Sam Bradford
Whether it be a play-making receiver or a steady offensive lineman, quarterback Sam Bradford needs some buddies on offense.
The current O-line let the polarizing signal-caller be sacked 35 times last season, running his career total to 105 in just two-and-a-half seasons.
Bradford showed massive signs of improvement in 2012, but sooner or later, the Rams' most important player is going to break into several little Sam Bradford-shaped pieces.
Of course, he also needs players to catch the ball, too.
Danny Amendola, one of the best underneath options in the league, has hands made of superglue, but he is both injury prone and a free agent.
Chris Givens is a dangerous long threat with a seemingly bright future, but if Amendola and Brandon Gibson both leave via the free-agent market, the soon-to-be second-year pro is suddenly the No. 1 option with youngsters Austin Pettis and Brian Quick backing him up.
That isn't going to fly if Bradford wants to let it fly. Or something like that.
We mentioned that the corners were in good shape, but the last step in completing Jeff Fisher's suddenly elite offense would be to find a safety.
Craig Dahl (free agency) and Quentin Mikell (could be cut), St. Louis' two starting safeties from 2012, are very likely going to be in different cities next season.
That's not exactly a bad thing, either, as both veterans were riddled with inconsistency, and the upcoming draft is chalk full of potentially uber-talented young replacements.
Texas' Kenny Vaccaro is the head of the class, but Matt Elam, Tony Jefferson, Eric Reid, Phillip Thomas and several others are intriguing options for the Rams, who have two first-round picks and eight selections overall.
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