Through the first month of the 2017 season, perhaps no team has more thoroughly surpassed expectations than the Los Angeles Rams. Coming off a disastrous 4-12 campaign that resulted in the termination of the coaching staff, the club now finds itself atop the NFC West standings at 2-1 and looks like one of the most exciting squads in the league.
After years of unimaginative, inefficient offenses, the Rams have fully rebranded themselves as a scoring machine under new head coach Sean McVay, whose scheme -- a fusion of spread concepts and traditional West Coast principles -- has produced more points than any other unit this season. In just three games, the Rams have crossed the 40-point threshold as many times as they did during the entirety of the Jeff Fisher era. At their current pace, they will surpass last season's total sometime during Week 7's tilt with the division-rival Arizona Cardinals.
The Rams' offensive renaissance extends beyond mere statistics, however. After a calamitous rookie season, former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff looks transformed under McVay's tutelage. Goff has nearly doubled his yard per attempt to 10.1, completed over 70 percent of his passes, and posted a passer rating of 118.2, all top-3 marks in the NFL. He has also thrown as many touchdowns as a year ago, while committing just one turnover in the process. Goff's prolific start may regress somewhat over the coming months, but he finally looks like a player worthy of his lofty draft status.
Other parts of the offense have undergone a rebirth as well. The offensive line has considerably improved in pass protection with the additions of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan, yielding just three sacks on the year. The receiving corps, which added Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp this offseason, also looks dangerous. Even Todd Gurley seems refreshed, topping 100-yards rushing last week for the first time since 2015 and scoring three touchdowns in a game.
Yet despite those positive developments, the Rams still lack a statement win under McVay. The two teams they defeated thus far -- the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers -- have won just a single game combined this season. Neither qualifies as a Super Bowl contender, leaving many to question the validity of the Los Angeles' strong start.
The Rams can't change that perception until they defeat a legit team, and they get their first crack at one this Sunday when they travel to Jerry World to take on the Dallas Cowboys (1 p.m. ET on FOX).
The Cowboys entered 2017 with Super Bowl aspirations, and their 2-1 start has done little to change their trajectory. Signal-caller Dak Prescott has developed in the pre-snap phase of the game and remains physically gifted as both a passer and runner. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott has looked sluggish early on, but he showed signs of a breakout a week ago. Those two form a young, ultra-talented nucleus that has toppled two teams this season (the Giants and Cardinals), while dropping one to the Broncos.
Though giving up 42 points to Denver in Week 1 wasn't pretty, the Dallas defense has taking meaningful steps since last year. Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence appears to have made the leap to superstardom, leading the NFL in both sacks (6 1/2) and total pressures (26) through three weeks. The linebacking corps added playmaking ability with Jaylon Smith, whose presence has removed some of the burden on all-purpose linebacker Sean Lee.
For the Rams to keep pace, Goff must continue to play largely mistake free while not settling for dump-off passes too often. Watkins has the speed to get behind Dallas' secondary, and a few deep connections could open up opportunities underneath for Kupp and Woods as well as draw plays with Gurley on the ground. The Cowboys blitz fewer times than most teams, but that could change Sunday if Los Angeles' pass protection continues to keep Goff clean. Forcing them to do so more frequently could open up Watkins for some backbreaking deep shots later in the game.
Defensively, the Rams need Aaron Donald to take over the trenches. Donald hasn't produced his typical amount of pressure after a prolonged holdout, but he showed signs of his field-tilting ability a week ago with a key fourth-quarter sack that all but sealed the game. If he can win the majority of his matchups with guard Chaz Green -- perhaps the only weak spot on an otherwise stellar offensive line -- LA can speed up Prescott's internal clock and get him off rhythm.
Even if the Rams take the right approach on offense and defense, an upset of the Cowboys on the road appears difficult. Dallas remains one of the most talented teams in the league and has only dropped one game at home over the past 12 months. The team also has plenty of motivation with a challenging schedule ahead.
Still, for the Rams to become a viable playoff contender, they need to elevate their play on the big stage against a strong opponent, and they don't come much bigger or stronger than the Cowboys.