NFL Football

Rams return home to face Texans as true playoff contenders

(AP Photo/Tim Ireland, File)

By GREG BEACHAM

AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) After a full month away from the Coliseum, the Los Angeles Rams are returning home as a bona fide playoff contender.

With Jared Goff throwing touchdown passes and Aaron Donald wrecking opposing offenses, these exciting Rams (6-2) could be the next big thing on Hollywood's sports landscape.

They've won three straight games to take the NFC West lead midway through the season, making serious progress toward their first winning season since 2003 and their first postseason berth since 2004.

But those three straight wins all occurred thousands of miles away from Los Angeles, where the Dodgers' thrilling World Series run and the ever-popular Lakers' new season understandably dominated sports conversation over the past month.

The Rams are back at the Coliseum on Sunday to face the injury-plagued Houston Texans (3-5), and LA fans can finally see what they've been missing.

"In LA, the one thing I've learned is this is a city that likes people that win," Goff said. "When you win, they come. And we have been winning, so hopefully they'll come."

The Rams are big favorites in their return against the Texans (3-5), whose own playoff hopes are in trouble. With J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson sidelined by injury and unproven Tom Savage likely starting at quarterback, the Rams have a solid opportunity to cement their status as an NFL power on the rise.

Doing something big at home would be an undeniable boost. The Rams are unbeaten away from LA this season, but just 1-2 at the Coliseum. They've only won twice in 10 regular-season games at their temporary home since moving back from St. Louis.

"It's always good to get back home, but it's more important to win when you get back," Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree said. "We realize we've got to show our fans what we're all about."

They're about exciting football: With the NFL's top-scoring offense, the Rams already have won more games and scored more points in the first half of this season than they managed in their entire 2016 homecoming season. Coach Sean McVay's offense attracts most of the attention, but coordinator Wade Phillips' defense has yielded just 11 points per game over the past four contests.

That could be daunting for the Texans, who have lost two straight since their bye week and three of four overall. Watson's knee injury is a crushing blow for Houston, but coach Bill O'Brien hopes Savage can improve on his understandably shaky start last week in a loss to Indianapolis.

O'Brien said his advice to Savage heading to the Coliseum will be to "play loose. Play free. Let it rip. Go out there, have some fun. Don't worry about anything other than making the right reads, getting us into the right play and let it rip."

Here are more things to watch when these franchises meet for just the fourth time:

BIG CHUNKS: The Rams have one of the NFL's best big-play offenses, while the Texans' defense is yielding 5.6 yards per play, one of the league's worst averages. That combination could bode well for a Los Angeles offense that has already scored 40 points in three games this season, including last week's 51-point pasting of the New York Giants. But McVay remains wary of the Texans' history of solid defensive play, despite the recent results. "If you're not, you get humbled in this league," McVay said. "That's why you can't overlook anybody, especially a very good team coming in here that's won their division the last couple years."

DOMINANT DONALD: Savage played at Pitt alongside Donald, the 2016 All-Pro who remains one of the NFL's best defensive players. This game should have been a simultaneous showcase of Donald and Watt, but the Texans star is out with a broken leg after just five games. When asked if Donald was the NFL's best defensive player, O'Brien showed proper respect and loyalty: "We've got one that's out right now that I think is the best defensive player in the league, but (Donald) is a great player. He's a relentless player."

MORE CHUNKS: Despite Watson's absence, the Texans still have plenty of skill-position talent on offense, including receiver DeAndre Hopkins - who has scored as many touchdowns (eight) as the Rams' entire receiving group - and running back Lamar Miller. Houston has made 20 offensive plays of at least 25 yards this season, one of the NFL's best totals. Los Angeles' defense has improved markedly in its past few games, but Texans fans should have hope: The Rams gave up 39 points to winless San Francisco earlier this season.

SACK PARTY: Goff is wary of Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, who has five sacks already this season. The Rams do their pass pressure by committee, with eight players recording at least two sacks this season.

BIG KICKS: Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein leads the NFL with 99 points in another standout season. Texans kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn is returning to the city where he played his college ball at UCLA.

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Updated November 9, 2017

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