COSTA MESA, Calif. – To beat the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, the Eagles are going to have to play a vastly improved game from the one they played in Seattle. The Rams are a balanced and explosive team on offense with a defense that is sound all around and dominating up front and a special teams, particularly in the kicking game, that is at the very top of the NFL.
It's a tough task.
But that's why December playoff races are so fun, and so telling. The Eagles are a win away from capturing the NFC East for the first time since 2013, and they're battling for playoff seeding as well. A lot is going on for a team that spent the week in Southern California trying to keep the routine as close to normal, despite living in a hotel, practicing in a baseball stadium, and working out at a nearby facility.
"It's gone really well," cornerback Jalen Mills said. "I think everybody has adjusted and now it's just football. We've had some good work, tough practices. Should be a great game on Sunday."
Here are some of the matchups to watch as the 10-2 Eagles play the 9-3 Rams.
EAGLES LBs vs. RB TODD GURLEY
This is one the Eagles have been focusing on all week. Gurley has a combined 1,502 yards from the line of scrimmage this year. He's as good at catching the ball out of the backfield as he is at taking a handoff. Gurley is a combination of speed and power and moves and agility. He's the real deal, the total package.
So the Eagles have to be great here. Don't mistake this: the Rams, for all of the explosive plays they've had this year, revolve the offense around getting the football in Gurley's hands.
"Special player," linebacker Nigel Bradham said. "He does everything well. You can have him in your sights and all of a sudden he's gone. So we have to be on top of our game with him."
Another challenge of the Rams' offense is what the coaching staff calls "distractions." They put players in motion all over the formation. They give a lot of different looks. The idea is to take players' eyes, particularly those of the linebackers, and have them peek where they shouldn't. Rams head coach Sean McVey has put together an innovative scheme and it's working. The linebackers have to be extremely disciplined here.
EAGLES SPECIAL TEAMS vs. RAMS SPECIAL TEAMS
The Rams have a great kicking game with punter Johnny Hekker and placekicker Greg Zuerlein. It's probably the most potent kicking tandem in the league. Hekker has great distance and placement with his kicks and the Eagles will be fortunate if they have a chance to get more than one or two returns. Zuerlein is a threat from 55 yards and in. Return man Pharoah Cooper returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown against Jacksonville and is also a dangerous punt return man.
Los Angeles blocked a point-after kick and a field goal attempt last week in its win over Arizona. That was only part of the special teams dominance in the victory. Zuerlein missed an extra point, but he connected on four field goals with a long of 56. Hekker had a 70-yard punt from his end zone in the third quarter, and, after a Cardinals three-and-out, Cooper returned the ensuing punt 30 yards to give the Rams the ball at the Arizona 30. The Rams scored a touchdown six plays later for a two-score advantage.
Combine all of that with a daring approach on special teams – Hekker was a high school quarterback who will make big plays with his arm when the situation is right – and the Rams are probably the best unit the Eagles will face this season.
EAGLES LG STEFEN WISNIEWSKI vs. DT AARON DONALD
Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox have a lot in common, but Donald doesn't have the Eagles defensive tackle's bulk. He does have the quickness and he plays with power and he will move along the line of scrimmage. Donald keys a really good Los Angeles front and Stefen Wisniewski is going to see a lot of him. Can Wisniewski hold up to the power of Donald? Will the Eagles give help wherever Donald lines up?
is having a terrific season, and he has a matchup advantage here over Rob Havenstein, the Rams' second-round draft pick in 2015. Graham and Cox have to really win the battle at the line of scrimmage and put the Rams behind the chains and give the pass rush a chance to get after Goff.
Graham is coming off a dominating performance in Seattle, where he reached quarterback Russell Wilson 1.5 times. This is a big spot for Graham. He has to win, and win big.