LOS ANGELES -- Tickets for Sunday's Seattle Seahawks-Los Angeles Rams game were still very much available as of Saturday afternoon, the cheapest ones going for $87. The last time the Rams hosted the division-rival Seahawks, on Sept. 18 last year, more than 90,000 fans stuffed themselves into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to watch the Rams capture their first L.A. victory in more than 20 years.
On Sunday, though, attendance will be no more than around 60,000, even though the Rams probably haven't been this exciting in a decade.
There's a tangible buzz about these 3-1 Rams, on their way to one of the greatest offensive turnarounds in NFL history. That buzz, however, has yet to translate into increased attendance in their home market, a struggle that the neighboring, winless Los Angeles Chargers know all too well. The Rams capped their Coliseum capacity at 65,000 this year, at least partly because hosting 90,000 fans at a 94-year-old venue became a logistical nightmare. But they still aren't selling out games.
It will take a while for the Rams to regain trust in L.A., a city starving for NFL football right up until it got an up-close look at the most boring brand of NFL football imaginable last season.
But fans won't come out in droves until the Rams prove they can be legitimate contenders -- and that can happen as early as this weekend.
The Seahawks were deemed a Super Bowl-caliber team heading in, but it's the Rams who are in first place through the season's first quarter, and it's the Rams who are actually favored -- minus-1.5 -- to win on Sunday.
The Rams are coming off a 4-12 season, with a 31-year-old rookie head coach and a 22-year-old second-year quarterback. The only real expectation for 2017 was noticeable improvement, with the playoffs an irrational, unrealistic objective. But then the first four games happened. The San Francisco 49ers (0-4) look very much like a team at the onset of a long rebuild. The Arizona Cardinals (2-2) seem almost helpless without running back David Johnson. And the Seahawks (2-2) have significant offensive line issues that might not resolve themselves.
The Rams are foolish enough to think they might just have a chance to win this division.
“It’s been the goal since Sean and the new staff got here," Rams quarterback Jared Goff said, referencing his new coach, Sean McVay. "There’s been no wavering in that. We just continued to try to get better in the offseason and now into the season. And I’ll say it again -- every day we come out here, and there’s no external influence on anything. We come out and practice and try to just get better.”
The Rams are better in ways nobody thought possible.
They went from scoring an NFL-low 224 points in 16 games last year to an NFL-best 142 points in the first four games this year. Goff, exceedingly more confident behind an improved offensive line and an innovative scheme, leads the NFL with 9.2 yards per attempt and sports a 112.2 passer rating. Todd Gurley leads the NFC with 596 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns. The Rams' top three receivers -- Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp -- have each caught at least 12 passes.
"They’ve totally turned around kind of their style, the scoring and offense and the ability just to control the football," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "It’s just really a clear distinction from what it was a year ago. The quarterback play is fantastic. They’ve really assembled a good bunch of guys. They’ve got big playmakers at every spot, so they’ve got, I would think, a great feel about them and momentum."
Seahawks-Rams is now a matchup between the NFL's oldest coach in Carroll, 66, and the youngest head coach in modern NFL history in McVay (Carroll worked with McVay's grandfather at one point). The Rams have won three of their past four games against the Seahawks and are 4-1 against them at home with Russell Wilson at quarterback, but that was all under Jeff Fisher.
Last year, when the Rams pulled out a 9-3 win in their home opener, Wilson was hobbled by a high ankle sprain and, as he put it, "moved like a bag of bricks." He's fully healthy now, having already gained 138 yards on the ground. Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson believes Wilson is "better out of the pocket than in the pocket." Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called Wilson "one of the best ever" at scrambling.
"We've got to contain the guy," said Phillips, whose defense is coming off holding the Dallas Cowboys to six second-half points last week. "But if you contain him, he can still really throw the football well. He presents big problems."
The biggest problems, however, come from the Seahawks' defense, which has yet to dominate but is still one of the NFL's best. After Seattle, the Rams play the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Arizona Cardinals, the New York Giants, the Houston Texans and the Minnesota Vikings, representing a string of six consecutive difficult matchups for an offense that is still growing under a new scheme.
The Rams, however, are keeping their focus on Week 5.
Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur called the upcoming game against the Seahawks "a great measuring stick for our offense and a big-time challenge.” Offensive lineman Jamon Brown referred to it as "another building block on our foundation, trying to take this from a losing culture to a winning culture."
Sunday can be a big step toward that.