By Jared Bell of USA Today
(KSDK Sports) -- If you pay attention to the oddsmakers, predictions, power rankings, talking heads and surely, the alignment of stars, the St. Louis Rams don't stand a chance.
The Rams are in the NFC West, which not too long ago was the NFL's worst division -- but is now the proud domain of the mighty San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
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Shoot, the road to the projected blizzard in New York for Super Bowl XLVIII runs right through the NFC West.
Seahawks or 49ers. Take your pick.
The Rams? They get a front-row seat.
"A lot of people are forgetting about the Rams," said defensive tackle Kendall Langford. "We beat both of those teams last year. We should've beat San Fran both times."
Of course, Langford is biased. He fled Miami and signed with St. Louis as a free agent in 2012. He liked the idea of joining his buddy on the line, defensive end Chris Long, then got wooed by Jeff Fisher, the coach who was the icing on the cake.
He liked the vibe.
"We feel like we're contenders in the NFC West," he said.
It's doubtful that they are shaking in their boots in San Francisco and Seattle by the threat of the Rams. But they should very much be on guard.
You know there's a surprise team lurking in the parity-laced NFL. Always happens. In each of the past 10 years at least one team has leaped from a last-place finish to first place, and in each campaign since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990 at least four teams qualified for the playoffs that did not get in the previous year.
So there's always hope.
St. Louis finished third in the NFC West in 2012, and couldn't even manage a winning record.
But there's more substance to the notion that they can emerge as a surprise team when considering that the Rams were 4-1-1 against NFC West opponents, the loss coming in Week 17 at Seattle and the tie coming in mid-November at San Francisco in one of their two overtime games against the 49ers.
The non-division games were an issue last season. So was St. Louis' tendency to hurt itself with mistakes, an injury-stung O-line and the lack of big offensive plays.
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Yet with the foundation laid last season and some well-crafted offseason moves, the Rams are poised for noticeable improvement.
"Certainly, 7-8-1 is not the benchmark," said Long, a sixth-year defensive end.
The Rams had an aggressive offseason. They maneuvered in the draft, moving up to select explosive slot receiver Tavon Austin. They signed Jake Long, a former No. 1 pick overall, to man left tackle ... and they're keeping their fingers crossed that he'll stay healthy after offseason shoulder surgery.
Jared Cook, the former Titans tight end, reunited with Fisher to provide a threat down the seam for Sam Bradford.
Maybe it finally comes together for Bradford, who was drafted No. 1 overall in 2010 but has a pedestrian 77.3 passer rating. For the first time in his NFL career, he has the same offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer) for consecutive years.
Just as significant, they will ride with his strong arm while opening up a spread offense.
This may not equate to the Greatest Show on Turf schemes devised by Mike Martz, but it's different. Austin and Cook can open up the middle, and this can't hurt the emerging threats on the outside, Chris Givens and Brian Quick.
"We're so much further along than last year," Bradford said.
The defense, meanwhile, keeps getting better, with stars at every level. The other first-round pick, Alec Ogletree, looks like a special inside linebacker with superb coverage skills.
Led by a deep D-line that might be the best in the NFL, the Rams tied the Broncos last season with 52 sacks. The unit might be even better, with second-year tackle Michael Brockers turning heads.
And they surely play like a tough Fisher-coached unit.
"Our identity has to be that we work as hard as anybody," said Chris Long. "That's what has to jump off the film when you watch us."
Then again, Long would be fine if you don't watch.
"Actually, I prefer to be overlooked," he said. "But I don't want to be disrespected."
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Long has surely heard the prognosticators. While he acknowledges the confidence gained for the manner in which they competed last season against the 49ers and Seahawks -- who combined for 22 victories in 2012 -- he doesn't see the lack of fanfare as a rallying cry.
"I've got enough of a chip on my shoulder from all the ups and downs over the last half-decade," he said, "that I don't need to watch TV to get (ticked) off to play football."
But at this point, it probably would not hurt.