ST. LOUIS -- Nobody expected the Arizona Cardinals to be one of only three unbeaten clubs after four weeks, certainly not after coming off of a disappointing 2011 season and with an ostensibly shaky situation at quarterback.
Yet they came into the Edward Jones Dome Thursday night with all the swagger of a playoff contender after meeting and defeating Seattle, New England on the road, Philadelphia and Miami in overtime. Their 4-0 start was their first in 38 years, or since 1974, when they were based in St. Louis, known affectionately as the "Cardiac Cards" and were led by such players as Jim Hart, Terry Metcalf and Mel Gray.
Yes, the Cardinals were designated as the NFL's surprise team in the first quarter of this season. So what does that make the St. Louis Rams, who shut down Arizona, 17-3, posted their third victory of the season (surpassing last year's total), and climbed above .500 for the first time since Nov. 4, 2006, when they were 4-3?
"Whatever you guys want to call us," said Rams rookie wide receiver Chris Givens, who raced down the left sideline and caught a 51-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford in the fourth quarter. "We're just going to continue to be the Rams, stay together and play for each other. We're not interested in what someone calls us."
By any name, the Rams appear to be building something special in their first season under the direction of former Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, who already has instilled a persistent, unflappable attitude throughout the roster. Although they have the youngest team in the league -- 15 rookies are on their 53-man roster and another half dozen are on their practice squad -- the Rams are starting to play with the confidence of a veteran bunch.
St. Louis beat its second NFC West opponent in five days (the Rams knocked off Seattle, 19-13, last Sunday) despite a suffering doses of adversity that would have sunk the team in recent seasons. Danny Amendola, their No. 1 wide receiver, suffered an injury to his right shoulder or collarbone in the first half; Bradford struggled through a span of 12 consecutive incompletions after hitting on three-of-four attempts for 65 yards and a touchdown on the game's opening drive; and their running game looked anemic in the first half (nine rushes, 29 yards).
But the Rams never yielded and kept coming at Kevin Kolb with a relentless pass rush that forced nine sacks and kept the Cardinals quarterback scrambling for safety. The Rams have not given up a touchdown since Seattle scored on its first possession; that's 21 straight series the Rams have kept opponents out of the end zone.
The Rams' defense showed its resolve on Arizona's first possession, bending but not breaking during a 17-play, 63-yard drive that consumed almost nine-and-a-half minutes but ended in a 35-yard Jay Feely field goal. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (a team-high 10 tackles and one of the nine sacks) said that was critical.
"We have the mind-set of trying to get after the passer," he said, after he and end Chris Long (one sack and two quarterback hurries) trotted into the Rams' jubilant locker room fresh off the NFL Network's postgame set. "Even when teams drive on us, it's a lot of 'make 'em kick field goals.' "
While veterans such as Laurinaitis, Long, running back Steven Jackson (76 yards on 18 carries) and Bradford (two touchdowns despite completing only seven-of-21 passes) made key contributions, there was no overlooking the roles several rookies played. In addition to Givens' touchdown, cornerback Janoris Jenkins stopped wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald on fourth down inside the St. Louis 5-yard line and did a solid job replacing Amendola as the punt returner; and punter Johnny Hekker kept Cardinals return threat Patrick Peterson under wraps with booming out-of-bounds punts of 68 and 58 yards. As a rookie last season, Peterson burned the Rams on two long touchdown returns, including a game-winner in overtime in Arizona.
Then there was Greg "The Leg" Zuerlein, the first-year kicker who extended his perfect field goal streak to 13 with a 53-yarder and put every one of his four kickoffs into the end zone. Zuerlein now has 15 touchbacks -- two more than Josh Brown, the man he replaced, had all of last season. Zuerlein said special teams coach John Fassel instructed him to do whatever he needed to do to keep the Cardinals from returning his kicks.
"I think he'd rather have more touchbacks than long field goals," Zuerlein said. "He likes them a lot."
The Rams are going to need more contributions from their rookies, such as Givens, who came into the game with only three receptions for 61 yards. The Rams didn't give a specific diagnosis on the injury to Amendola, who suffered a season-ending dislocated elbow in the season opener last year and was so frustrated about his latest setback that he flung his helmet against the wall as he walked through the corridor leading to the locker room, but he could be out for a significant amount of time. He watched the second half in street clothes from the sidelines with his ailing arm in a sling.
"It's a big loss," Givens said. "Danny is a big part of our offense, and he's one of the guys I look up to."
Of course, if the Rams hope to continue to be contenders veterans such as Jackson will have to be big playmakers. How much longer the former 2004 first-round draft pick stays in a Rams' uniform became a subject of speculation earlier Thursday when Pete Prisco of CBS Sportsline reported the Rams have allowed Jackson to opt out of the final year of his contract, meaning Jackson will become an unrestricted free agent after this season.
That doesn't necessarily guarantee Jackson will leave, but he will turn 30 next summer. The Rams, who have two first-round draft picks in 2013 as a result of a blockbuster trade with the Redskins, may want to get younger at running back, or reduce their salary cap.
"It's part of the business," Jackson, the Rams' all-time leading rusher, said after the game. "I said in 2004 I want to retire here. This organization gave me an opportunity to live out a dream. At the end of the season, we'll see what's happening with me.
"But something is happening here that I want to be a part of."
Something indeed. For the first time in almost six years, Jackson and the rest of the Rams walked out of the locker room Thursday night a team above .500.
"It's a beautiful thing," Laurinaitis said.