A potential NFC Championship Game preview has turned into potential rout as Eagles' injury woes mount
Earlier this season, the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams had this date circled on the calendar as a potential NFC Championship Game preview. These two teams with exciting offenses and two of the best young quarterbacks in the game appeared on a collision course to battle over conference supremacy for years to come.
But as the 2018 season wore on, they’ve moved in decidedly different directions. The Eagles, reigning Super Bowl champions, didn’t even get Carson Wentz back from a torn ACL until Week 3. An up-and-down season followed, with major injuries, close losses and key mistakes on offense leaving the team scratching their heads. This week, the Eagles finally found out why their leader has been a step behind, at least. A broken vertebra, one Wentz has been dealing with quietly for weeks, will likely shut down their franchise player for the rest of 2018.
That puts Nick Foles up against his former Rams team with the Eagles needing a miracle. At 6-7, three wins would likely earn them the six seed in the NFC playoff race but they’ll need to beat the 11-2 Rams in L.A., the 9-4 Houston Texans, and the 6-7 Washington Redskins on the road in order to qualify. It’s a daunting task for the team even if they were at 100 percent; instead, the odds are stacked against the Eagles even mounting a Super Bowl defense.
They’ll run into an angry Rams team looking to prove themselves after an ugly loss to the Chicago Bears on the road last Sunday night. It cost them control of their own destiny as the team seeks home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. In order to have a chance, they’ll likely need to sweep their final three games with the Eagles their only serious obstacle. After that looms two opponents, the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, with a combined record of 6-20.
Can the Rams take care of business? Or will Foles rise up to create another edition of the Philly special as he auditions for a role elsewhere in 2019?
Philadelphia at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 16 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -11.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Can a ragtag bunch of substitute Eagles overcome a slew of injuries?
The Eagles have plenty of reasons they’ve fallen far behind the Rams in 2018. But one of them was left completely to the football gods. Just check this week’s injury report, where not a single Ram is listed with a physical problem as of Thursday’s writing. They’ve had a few setbacks, most notably wide receiver Cooper Kupp out for the year after tearing his ACL, but have most of their top-tier players in mint condition 14 weeks into the year.
Compare that to the Eagles, who had 10 players (nine for physical reasons) listed on Thursday’s report. They also have a number of key contributors out for the year: running back Jay Ajayi (ACL), free agent pickup wide receiver Mike Wallace (fibula), and starting cornerback Ronald Darby (ACL), to name a few. The Eagles have over a dozen(!) players on injured reserve, forcing relative unknowns or practice squad players to play major roles.
That lack of depth was evident last week against the Cowboys, when Amari Cooper torched the secondary for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns. Cre’Von Leblanc, while putting in a yeoman’s effort, is not going to keep up with the likes of Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and even Josh Reynolds. If running back Todd Gurley opens up the passing game, Jared Goff has a chance for a field day against this weakened defense.
Just last week, Dak Prescott threw for a career-best 455 yards. And according to the injury report, the Eagles are likely to be down another player in the secondary as Sidney Jones aggravated his hamstring injury in that Cowboys game and hasn’t practiced all week.
2. Can the Rams' offense get back on track?
Goff had arguably the worst game of his career against the Bears. A career-high four interceptions combined with a season-low 180 passing yards as he was picked apart at Soldier Field. A team that scores 32.7 points per game, third in the NFL behind the Chiefs and Saints, was limited to just six points.
One of the issues for the Rams during that game was an inability to commit to the run. Todd Gurley had just 11 carries for 28 yards, averaging a season-low 2.5 yards per carry. Second in the NFL with 1,203 rushing yards, you can’t expect Gurley to stay down for long. He now faces an Eagles defense that’s allowed the following to top-tier running backs:
Last week vs. Ezekiel Elliott: 113 yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 79 receiving yards
Two weeks ago vs. Adrian Peterson: A 90-yard touchdown run (98 rushing yards overall)
Three weeks ago vs. Saquon Barkley: 101 yards, 7.8 yards per carry, 41 receiving yards, two total touchdowns
There’s a clear pattern here. It’s a golden opportunity for Gurley to reestablish himself after the Cowboys’ comeback has Elliott threatening to take home the rushing title. And if Gurley does get going... this one could get ugly, early considering the Eagles’ inability to score in the first quarter. The Rams average 5.9 points to start the first 15 minutes, third in the NFL while the Eagles are dead last at 2.2.
3. How will Nick Foles do?
Foles will certainly be motivated to face his former team, especially with a 2019 job on the line. It’s likely he’ll move on to be a starter elsewhere after agreeing to back up an ailing Wentz for one last season. How could the Super Bowl MVP stay a backup the rest of his career?
That said, Foles has work to do to impress potential suitors. He hasn’t played since Week 2 against the Buccaneers and his stats this season are unimpressive: 451 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a pedestrian quarterback rating of 78.9. Foles did nothing to lose those games for the Eagles but he did little to win them; and back then, they had a full-fledged run game with Jay Ajayi and arguably similar receiving options surrounding him.
One benefactor of Foles’ emergence back onto the field: Nelson Agholor. Agholor had 16 catches the first two games; he hasn’t had more than six grabs since. A backup always changes the complexion of the offense and with Foles, look for a few deep plays to Agholor and potentially Golden Tate as the Philly offense should take a few more chances. At this point, they have nothing to lose.
You wonder how head coach Doug Pederson thinks heading into this weekend, by the way, after watching the Chargers go for two in the closing minute against the Chiefs and winning the game on "Thursday Night Football?" Pederson passed on the opportunity last week against the Cowboys, ended up losing in overtime and now he’s about to lose a shot at the playoffs.
Nick Foles did an admirable job last season of keeping this Eagles team in the game against the Rams and hanging on after Carson Wentz suffered his ACL injury. But that thrilling, 43-35 victory in Los Angeles also came with a decidedly different team around him.
The Rams are hungry to avenge that defeat and healthy compared to an Eagles team just seven days removed from watching the NFC East (and potentially their Super Bowl defense) fully evaporate in overtime. It’s hard to see them recovering with the loss of their leader the cherry on top of an utterly disappointing 2018.
Prediction: Rams 34, Eagles 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.