THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — The Los Angeles Rams seemed to come out of nowhere last season to win their first NFC West championship in 14 years.
When the Rams clinched their second straight division title Sunday, everybody in the NFL had seen it coming all year long.
The league-leading Rams (11-1) haven't surprised anybody this season, not after their remarkable 2017 transformation under rookie head coach Sean McVay.
They're still the division champs again, this time with four games to spare and plenty of opportunities to climb even higher before the postseason.
The Rams became the first team to clinch a postseason berth by beating the Lions 30-16 last weekend, guaranteeing themselves at least one home playoff game. This franchise hadn't won back-to-back NFC West championships since 1979, when the Rams completed a run of seven straight.
"It's a blessing," McVay said Monday after returning from Detroit with a raging winter cold. "You don't take anything for granted. It's nice to be able to still have an opportunity to accomplish some things as you continue to progress through this season, but it still feels great either way to be able to accomplish something special with people that you care about and that you love."
The Rams put on celebratory hats at Ford Field, but the muted party was mostly forgotten Monday when they got home.
According to left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Rams have greater expectations after they built on last season's 11-5 record with an even more impressive campaign this fall.
"With all of us coming together for the first time (last year), it felt like you responded and rose to the occasion and achieved something," Whitworth said. "I think this year, it feels like we expected to be a good football team. We expected to have an opportunity to win this division again, and we went out and did it. So I think you more see it as a checklist item. ... You're happy you won it, but it's not the end goal, and it's not really something we didn't think or expect that we could do."
Two straight division titles still are a notable achievement in the up-and-down history of the Rams, who have won only one NFL championship since 1951.
Los Angeles' string of solid playoff teams in the 1980s won just one division title. The Greatest Show on Turf and its descendants in St. Louis won three division titles in five years, but never two in a row.
The Rams had missed the playoffs in 12 consecutive seasons before McVay and Wade Phillips led them back last year, only to lose an opening-round home game to Atlanta.
The Rams are playoff-bound again, but they still have plenty to do in December — starting with the chance to clinch a first-round bye during their trip to Chicago on Sunday night.
A win over the Bears (8-4), who have the NFC's third-best record behind LA and New Orleans (10-2), would guarantee an extra week of rest for the Rams in January.
The Rams also control their destiny for home-field advantage in a potential NFC championship game with the Saints, but that race could go deep into December.
"It's a big deal," McVay said. "To be able to earn the opportunity in your 13th game of the season to be able to, at the worst, clinch a No. 2 seed, it would mean that you'll be able to watch that first week of the wild card round (at home). It's a huge deal to us, so that's certainly going to be a great challenge. That's the next step."
NOTES: Backup running back Malcolm Brown injured his collarbone in Detroit, and he was expected to have "a procedure that's not necessarily a surgery" on Monday, McVay said without elaborating. The Rams didn't know the severity of the injury. ... McVay confirmed he spoke with former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury about potentially being "an extra set of eyes" for the Rams down the stretch. The offense-minded coaches are good friends, and Kingsbury spent time with the Rams during the summer. "He's got a lot of opportunities that he's figuring out now, so there's really no news on that front," McVay said. ... McVay hopes to kick his cold in time for the Rams' trip to wintry Chicago. "Even if I'm not healthy, that's not going to hold me back," McVay said. "I'm not out there playing, so as long as my brain isn't too slow, then I'm going to do the best I can to get as healthy as possible and ready to go for these guys."