Im­proved Rams get sec­ond chance


Mar­cus Peters was in Amari Cooper’s face from the Cow­boys’ open­ing drive un­til the postgame hand­shakes, where the Rams cor­ner­back gave one last shove to the Dal­las re­ceiver.

Peters didn’t win all of his matchups with Cooper. In fact, his un­nec­es­sary rough­ness penalty from his first scrap with Cooper led di­rectly to Dal­las’ first touch­down in the clubs’ di­vi­sional play­off game Satur­day night in Los An­ge­les.

But for bet­ter or worse, Peters also ex­em­pli­fied his team’s de­ter­mi­na­tion not to be pushed around by any­one — and some­times, they’ll even start the fights.

With their 30-22 vic­tory over the Cow­boys, the Rams (14-3) are headed to the NFC cham­pi­onship game against the New Or­leans Saints on Sun­day with an in­cen­di­ary at­ti­tude and re­newed proof of their tough­ness on both sides of the ball.

“Our sense of fo­cus and the sense of ur­gency have gone up tremen­dously,” guard Rodger Saf­fold said.

The Rams have built a rep­u­ta­tion for cere­bral, clever play dur­ing two sea­sons of coach Sean McVay’s in­flu­en­tial of­fen­sive schemes. But one big dif­fer­ence be­tween last sea­son’s team, which lost its first play­off game, and this sea­son’s NFC cham­pi­onship-bound squad is the Rams’ provoca­tive new de­fen­sive play­ers, led by Peters and fel­low cor­ner­back Aqib Talib, along with a team-wide em­brace of phys­i­cal, dis­rup­tive play.

The Rams know they’ll have to be tough again when they visit New Or­leans for the third time this sea­son, count­ing a pre­sea­son trip to the Big Easy. Los An­ge­les took its first loss of the year at the Su­per­dome on Nov. 4, fall­ing 45-35.

“I think we match up re­ally well (with the Saints),” Saf­fold said. “I think we’ll have a bet­ter plan against them the sec­ond go-round.”

The Rams also will have Talib, who was out with an in­jury when Los An­ge­les na­tive Michael Thomas made 12 catches for 211 yards as the Saints ran wild in the Rams sec­ondary.

“The Saints have a highly con­trolled game plan,” Rams edge rusher Dante Fowler said. “They’ve got ev­ery- thing down pat, and they’re go­ing to ex­e­cute it.”

Fowler could only smile when left tackle An­drew Whit­worth led the block­ing for Todd Gur­ley’s 35-yard TD run in the first half.

“They played very phys­i­cal, lights out,” Fowler said. “The in­ten­sity that Whit­worth brought, that set the tone. Es­pe­cially with that touch­down that Gur­ley had, I think that was the real tone-set­ter. That was the dif­fer­ence in the game . ... That’s when I knew we were go­ing to win the game.”

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