THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A moment after Greg Zuerlein‘s 44-yard field goal attempt missed by inches, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll threw off his headset and jubilantly sprinted from the sideline. Seahawks players embraced and chest bumped. Fans inside CenturyLink Field went wild during the 30-29 win over the Los Angeles Rams.

The celebration last Thursday in Seattle did not mimic a typical Week 5 victory, but a team finally budging an immovable force. The Rams, after all, had defeated the Seahawks in their previous three meetings and are the two-time defending NFC West champions.

“Been a while since we had this game and got this win over these guys,” Carroll said. “These guys have been going great. It’s a good accomplishment for us.”

There was no doubt the Rams would face a more competitive NFC West after sweeping the division a season ago. The Seahawks appeared rejuvenated behind quarterback Russell Wilson. The San Francisco 49ers returned quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from season-ending knee surgery and the Arizona Cardinals and first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury went all-in to select quarterback Kyler Murray with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

But the Rams, coming off a Super Bowl LIII appearance and returning key starters Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald, remained the favorite.

However, after a 3-2 start, and with the undefeated 49ers visiting Sunday, their reign appears in jeopardy.

“It’s a division game,” safety John Johnson III said. “We’re coming off two losses, so our backs are against the wall, so we’ve just got to come out swinging.”

Since Sean McVay took over as coach in 2017, the Rams have not lost three straight, nor have sat anywhere but first place in the division. But after consecutive losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seahawks, the Rams are in third behind the 49ers and Seahawks.

“The NFC West? Pretty good, huh?” Goff deadpanned. “We’ve got some good teams here. We’ve got to win some games and compete with these guys and expect to.”

Despite the uneven start, Rams players are not panicking.

“I haven’t been around here the last couple of years, but I didn’t know a season ended after five games,” safety Eric Weddle said sarcastically. “We know where we’re at, we know what type of team we have and we’re going to get back to playing ball and practicing.”

After giving up 49 points in their 3-0 start, the Rams have given up 85 points the past two games. They’re allowing 26.8 points per game this season, ranking 26th in the league. Prior to Week 4, they gave up one passing play of more than 30 yards but have given up several explosive plays since.

Defensive players offered several areas needing improvement.

“It’s not a big thing in a game, making sacks and stuff like that,” defensive end Michael Brockers said. “But it’s the little things that will keep us ahead of the ball, ahead of the offense and making sure we’re lined up.”

Said cornerback Marcus Peters: “Just all of us harping on how to just play better defense overall, how to get off on third downs, how we can create some more turnovers and just how to eliminate the big ball. You feel me, the big ball is the thing that’s been occurring these last few weeks and just eliminate it.”

The Rams’ inefficiencies haven’t been limited to defense.

They are the only team in the league that has yet to score a first-quarter offensive touchdown and remain in search of an identity despite returning each of their skill-position playmakers.

“We’ve got some continuity at some spots, but we’re also figuring out what’s the best way to handle different things, accentuate our players’ skill sets,” McVay said. “Whether that be the interior of the line, our backs, things like that. It’s something that we’re continuing to evaluate.”

Despite their first-quarter woes, the Rams still rank sixth in scoring, averaging 29.2 points.

“We’re a very confident group, same team as last year pretty much,” receiver Robert Woods said. “We have flashes throughout the games. Just last year we were able to have flashes and pull off the wins, right now it’s just flashes and not finishing, not being complete.”

Sunday will be the first meeting between the Rams and 49ers with both teams over .500 since Week 13 in 2001, according to Stats & Information research.

The 49ers, coming off a 31-3 blowout of the Cleveland Browns, have proven themselves as contenders. They boast the top running game in the league, rushing for an average of 200 yards, and are second in scoring, averaging 31.8 points.

A win over the Rams would provide the 49ers another important check as they attempt a return to prominence.

“Any time you play someone in the division it’s got a little bit more juice than outside the division,” 49ers coach said.

The Rams have not lost a meaningful game to the 49ers in McVay’s tenure as coach (The Rams lost to the 49ers in Week 17 in 2017 after McVay sat starters with a playoff berth secured). They have no intention of starting Sunday.

“We go into every game trying to win, I think especially a division game,” Goff said. “That’s where the pressure lies.”


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