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The Los Angeles Rams’ biggest opponent in the 2018 NFL Playoffs is their former selves

The Rams are playing the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday. But they’re facing themselves.

The 2017 Los Angeles Rams have had a storybook season. From Head Coach Sean McVay proving Aaliyah right to QB Jared Goff putting his NFL career on track to RB Todd Gurley ascending into MVP discussions, the first winning season and playoff action in a decade has been a godsend.

So for Theme Week this week across SB Nation NFL sites, we’re looking at the playoffs and making open-ended predictions. And for the Rams, there’s only one real angle that I think supercedes them all. It’s the fact that it took them so long to get here, which means for so many Rams, the real opponent they face is their former selves.

On Turf Show Radio this week, Misone asked me if Goff would finally lead the Rams to a game-winning score in a signature 4th-quarter comeback win. Goff’s real opponent is the Jared Goff who has yet to do that. As I said on the show, he’s entirely capable of doing so. But he hasn’t yet. He has to exorcise those demons in order for the Rams to make a run.

OL Rodger Saffold, once bemoaned as the archetype of the injury-plagued talent, has now put together two seasons of healthy football. A Ram since 2010, Saffold has to block Falcons on Saturday, but he also will have to block out shadows of his former self.

OLB Robert Quinn has seen better days, honestly. A terror from 2012-14, Quinn’s 2015 and 2016 might have wrecked his body. He still put in work in 2017, but he’ll be rushing down visions of his former self in the playoffs.

CB Trumaine Johnson was second fiddle to CB Janoris Jenkins years after they were both drafted in the 2012 NFL Draft. When Jenkins left for the Giants last year and made the Pro Bowl, many wondered if the Rams had held on to the right guy albeit on a tenuous franchise tag. Now tagged again, Tru has certainly played his way into earning a lucrative contract this offseason. Now in the postseason for the first time, he’s defending against himself trying to prove in the most meaningful football that he’s ever played that he is indeed worthy of being considered in the pantheon of the league’s better CB1s.

And for McVay, it’s about putting all of that behind for the entire team. More than anyone, he’s been in charge of the culture change that was required to turn the team around. That change, though, gets its biggest test on Saturday and thereafter if the Rams can get the win. McVay’s charged with overseeing the Rams relegate the questions of fitness and experience to historical pages on the internet and validating the effect of the culture change.

The Rams aren’t alone in this.

The Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills are in similar positions. The Falcons are playing against the ghost of Super Bowl LI. The Kansas City Chiefs have taken the mantle from the Cincinnati Bengals of the playoff team nobody is truly worried about. The Philadelphia Eagles are trying to take the #1 seed through the NFL with Insert QB Here leading the charge. And the New England Patriots are playing against time.

In the larger picture, every team has more metaphysical foes to face. Narrative and circumstance exist beyond the playing field. Framing requires borders.

For the 2017 Los Angeles Rams, the success of the regular season has helped establish a new identity for a franchise lagging for national love. In the playoffs this year, they’re playing for a newfound respect for the first time.

Which of course means that in doing so, they’re fighting to relegate the failures of yesteryear to yesteryear.

Game on.