Los Angeles has been a thorn in Seattle’s side the past few seasons, but it rarely mattered in the big picture. That changed this season.

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It wasn’t long ago that wearing a 49ers jersey prompted an instant heckle in this town. It’s not that other fan bases were necessarily welcomed, but San Francisco bred a particular level of ire.

There was the jostling atop the NFC West. There was the battle for Super Bowl rights. There was Sherman vs. Crabtree, Carroll vs. Harbaugh — the Space Needle vs. the Golden Gate Bridge. It was one of the more intense rivalries the Seattle sports scene has ever experienced — far more intense than the one that sprung up with the Cardinals in 2014 and 2015. But it has since vanished along with the Niners’ winning ways.

The Rams, however, will gladly take their place.

The Seahawks’ season very well could be defined when they host Los Angeles on Sunday. Winning is critical for either team’s chances of claiming the division championship, and a loss would likely sink the Seahawks’ playoff hopes.

Over the past few years, the Rams’ role at this point of the season has been one of a potential spoiler, a pebble in the Seahawks’ shoe. Not anymore. This is a start of a new rivalry — one that will burn for years to come.

“I know (CenturyLink Field) is going to be crazy and wild for it, and we’re going to be the same way,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “It can’t come soon enough.”

The Rams (9-4) haven’t made the playoffs since 2004 yet continually cause veins to pop out of the Seahawks’ foreheads. Since 2012, the year Seattle’s five-year playoff streak began, the Rams have beaten the Seahawks five times — including twice in 2015. Doesn’t matter what their record has been. Doesn’t matter who’s coaching them or flinging passes.

Regardless of their season stats, the Rams have had the Seahawks’ number.

The thing is, those upset wins have never really irked the fan base around here because it had little impact on Seattle’s seasons. The Rams were annoying, but not a real danger. In the Russell Wilson era, they’ve never truly taken anything that the Seahawks thought was theirs.

This year could be different. So could next year and the year after that. This isn’t a fluke team having a fluke year as a result of some fluke wins. The Rams are a legitimate threat to own the NFC West for years to come.

They have the quarterback, for one. Sure, there was a point in which Jared Goff had the look of a JaMarcus Russell-like bust, but he has since evolved into one of the better signal-callers in the NFL. His 99.2 passer rating is fifth among quarterbacks who have thrown at least 300 passes this year, and is more than three points higher than Wilson’s.

And when you consider the strides the second-year player has made since last season — when he threw five touchdowns and seven interceptions while posting a passer rating of 63.6 — it’s not hard to imagine him improving more and more each season.

They’ve also got the running game. Todd Gurley was essentially MIA last season but is on track for the best season of his three-year career.

His 10 touchdowns lead the NFL. His 1,035 rushing yards are third. His being a first-round pick broke a recent trend regarding the value teams ascribe to running backs, but his performance has more than justified the decision.

They also have the defense.

Russell Wilson isn’t always known for his candor, but when he said Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was the best defensive player he’s ever faced, that’s about as direct as you can get. Donald has yet to get the contract extension he sought (and held out for) this preseason, but it’s hard to think it won’t come. And when he’s joined by Robert Quinn, Matt Longacre, Michael Brockers and Connor Barwin up front, it’s not hard to see why this team has allowed just 20.4 points per game — only one more than the Seahawks.

Folks in Seattle might not want to hear it, but the Rams are to the Seahawks what the Seahawks were to the Niners a few years back. They’re the young, talented up-and-comers ready to take over the division — and perhaps a lot more.

They’re not there yet, though, and Seattle plans to prove that Sunday. Should be a great battle — one of many great battles to come.