5 key matchups Eagles need to win to beat Rams

5 key matchups Eagles need to win to beat Rams

ANAHEIM, Calif. — After dropping last week's game in Seattle, this weekend's matchup against the Rams at the LA Coliseum is huge for the Eagles

And it won't be easy. 

The Eagles are tied for the NFC's best record at 10-2, but the Rams have put together a resurgent season with Jared Goff and new head coach Sean McVay. They are 9-3 heading into this one. 

It won't make the list, but the number of Eagles fans in the stadium is something to watch (see story). Earlier this week, McVay said his team might work on the silent count because of the possibility of plenty of Eagles fans in attendance. 

"Our fans have been outstanding when you really look at it," McVay said on a conference call with Philly reporters earlier this week. "We feel very fortunate to have a great crowd from the LA market. The Saints game, our most recent game at home, was a great turnout. It was a great atmosphere. 

"I think I was more kind of alluding to the fact that you guys travel so well and then hearing the way Philly fans traveled when they played the Chargers earlier on in the year. We definitely don't ever want to be caught off guard. But our fans have been outstanding and we're hopefully looking forward to a heavy LA crowd on Sunday."

Here are five matchups on the field to watch: 

Sammy Watkins vs. Ronald Darby 
Former teammates. Both speed guys. This one should be fun. You'll remember back in the summer when the Bills were making a ton of moves, Watkins and Darby were traded out of town on the same day. 

The two should know each other pretty well. They were teammates for two seasons in Buffalo and would have gone up against each other in practice daily. 

Watkins has had decent production with the Rams. He has 31 catches for 528 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games. Not tremendous, but he's still a threat, especially deep. 

Meanwhile, Darby has been back for three games since recovering from a dislocated ankle. He has played pretty well in that time. 

"He's a good player," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said of Darby. "He didn't play his best game this year (against Seattle). I think that play down the field, the pass interference was a big play, and he knows he can play that play better. But we're excited to have him back, and he's been a big contributor for us."

Todd Gurley vs. Eagles' run D
Gurley is arguably the best and most complete running back the Eagles will face all season. He's a huge part of the Rams' offense and can do it on the ground and as a receiver out of the backfield. 

"He's a big back, but he picks and chooses his holes," Schwartz said. "He can run downhill, but he also has some Le'Veon Bell in him when it comes to picking his way through. Second-leading rusher in the NFL, but he's been very productive in the passing game. I think that's something that went unnoticed from me until we really started diving into the film. He's averaging double-digits in average per reception. For a running back, that's pretty impressive. So it's not just the run game, it's the pass game also."

The Eagles have given up 100 yards on the ground in two of their last three games, but in the middle was a six-yard rushing performance from the Bears. Overall, the Eagles still have the best rushing defense in the NFL, giving up 68.1 yards per game. 

Stefen Wisniewski vs. Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald is a nightmare. He's one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL and has the ability to ruin every single play the Eagles run. 

Donald has been a Pro Bowler in the first three of his NFL seasons and has been an All-Pro in his last two seasons. He's that good. 

"He's a game-changer," Wentz said. "He can really mess up some things offensively if you're not aware of where he's at and kind of game plan a little bit for him. At the same time, we have a ton of confidence in the five guys up front. We have a ton of confidence they can get the job done. We'll limit what he can do and how he can affect the game, but he's a heck of a player and you just have to be aware at times."

Wisniewski is coming off a tough game against Seattle but has played pretty well since being inserted into the Eagles' starting lineup. This will be a big test for him. 

Jay Ajayi vs. Rams' run D
If there's one area where the Eagles might be able to exploit the Rams' defense, it's on the ground. 

The Rams have given up 122.8 rushing yards per game this season. The Eagles, as long as they don't get behind early, should try to establish the run against this team, even with the return of Alec Ogletree expected. 

Last week, for the first time since his arrival, Ajayi led the Eagles' running backs in snaps. If the Eagles want him to be a big-time contributor down the stretch, it's time to start featuring him a little more. They need to get him going. 

Jared Goff vs. Jim Schwartz 
There will be a bit of a chess match during Sunday's game. The Rams use an interesting offensive look, where they get to the line and Goff looks to the sideline to get the play. That means the Eagles might try to wait a little bit before they show the Rams what they're doing ... or they show and try to switch quickly. 

It's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. 

As he normally does, Schwartz didn't want to get into the specifics of his game plan. Why tell the Rams how he plans on stopping them? 

"There are ways," he said, "that we can combat that kind of audible system."

Jeffrey Lurie deserves more credit

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Jeffrey Lurie deserves more credit

There’s one person who’s been here for all of it. From the wild-card win over the Lions at the Vet in 1995 to the win over the Falcons last weekend at the Linc. 

There’s one constant over the years with the Eagles, and that’s owner Jeff Lurie, and I don’t think he’s ever been appreciated enough for the organization he’s built, and I don’t think he’s ever been given enough credit for the way he’s built it.

Since 1995, the first year that Lurie had complete control of the franchise, the Eagles have reached the playoffs 13 times, and only the Packers, Colts, Steelers and Patriots have gotten there more. 

Today’s game against the Vikings will be the Eagles’ sixth conference championship game under Lurie’s ownership, and only the Patriots have been to more during that 23-year span.

We’re all aware the Eagles have never won a Super Bowl and haven’t won a championship since 1960, but Lurie has done absolutely everything in his power to build a winner since the day he got here.

He has never hesitated to spend money — tons of money — for free agents. Somewhere along the line, Lurie gained the reputation for being cheap when nothing could be farther from the truth. 

From Troy Vincent and Irving Fryar in the mid-1990s to Jevon Kearse and Jon Runyan and Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha and Stacy Andrews, the Eagles have always out-spent everybody in their pursuit of talent. 

Now, all those guys didn’t pan out. We know all about the Eagles’ free agent busts over the years. There have been plenty of them. But that’s not Lurie’s fault. He always trusted his personnel guys, and that’s what a good owner does. When they wanted a player, he wrote the check. 

He gave fans one of the nicest stadiums in the NFL. He got the NovaCare Complex built, helping make Philly an attractive destination for free agents. He's hired four head coaches, and the first two — Ray Rhodes and Andy Reid — were named Coach of the Year within their first few seasons. Chip Kelly could have been in 2013. Doug Pederson should be this year.

He approved the Michael Vick signing after a long and careful evaluation period when no other owner wanted anything to do with him, facilitating Vick's reinvention as a playoff quarterback as well as a productive member of society.

He navigated the franchise through a stormy transition from Joe Banner's stewardship of the front office to Howie Roseman's. He went out and hired Joe Douglas, which has paid immediate dividends in terms of talent.

He's brilliantly re-connected the franchise with its past, something his predecessor, Norman Braman, refused to do. Guys who gave everything they had for this franchise years ago and decades ago are once more made to feel a part of things instead of being forgotten and ignored. The historical displays at the Linc give real meaning to the 85-year history of one of the NFL's original franchises.

And he was in the middle of one of the most important decisions in Eagles history — the decision to move up to the No. 2 spot in the 2016 draft by any means necessary, whatever the cost, to draft Carson Wentz.

The organization's realization that until it had an elite franchise quarterback in place it wasn't likely to make a Super Bowl run was critical, and Lurie led that charge.

There have been mistakes and misjudgments along the way. That's going to happen when you run a franchise for a quarter of a century.

He allowed Brian Dawkins to leave after the 2008 season. He stuck with Reid one year too long. He shouldn't have given Chip unlimited power after the 2014 season. 

But the overall body of work? Overwhelmingly positive.

Since 1995, the Eagles have won 10 or more games 13 times in 23 seasons. Their overall record since Lurie took over — 206-160-2 (.563) — is sixth-best in the NFL during that span, second only to the Packers in the NFC.

And now they're one game from their second Super Bowl under Lurie, one game from winning the NFC with Pederson coaching and Nick Foles quarterbacking.

All the criticisms we've always heard about Lurie — he's an outsider, he's only in it to get rich, he's too cheap — are so ridiculously off-base and always have been.

Without Lurie there is no Reid or Pederson, which means there is no Tom Modrak or Howie Roseman, which means there is no Donovan McNabb or Wentz, there is no Dawk or Hugh or Trott, there is no Brian Westbrook or Jason Peters.

No, the Eagles haven't won a championship since Lurie bought the team, but he's done everything he could to make it happen.

And if not this year, the Eagles sure are in a tremendous position to keep making deep playoff runs for the foreseeable future.

Lurie wants this as bad as you do. He really does. 

It's time to appreciate what he's done for this franchise and recognize that without him, today would probably be just another lazy January Sunday where we all sat in front of the TV and watched somebody else play football.

Unselfish veterans key to Eagles' offensive success

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Unselfish veterans key to Eagles' offensive success

When LeGarrette Blount was a rookie with the Buccaneers back in 2010, he wanted the ball. All the time. Every snap. Most rookies do.

Didn't happen. Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olsen — who was at the Linc last weekend with the Falcons — made sure former 1,000-yard rusher Cadillac Williams got his touches, as well.

Blount respected Williams but wasn't crazy about the arrangement.

"Obviously, I wanted the football," Blount said of his younger self. "I felt like I was the better back, but Cadillac Williams had been a top-5 pick a few years earlier, he had been Rookie of the Year, he had an amazing career before his knee injury (in 2007).

"And Earnest Graham was one of my teammates, and he would just be like, ‘Man, be patient, wait your turn, it’ll come full circle, I promise you.’ 

"And so I waited and I was patient and my turn did come, and from then on I figured, 'OK, patience is the big key.' Don’t worry about yourself. Keep on grinding and preparing, and when your chance comes just make the best of it."

Seven years later, Blount has essentially become Earnest Graham, the wise old veteran who preaches patience and unselfishness to his younger teammates.

The Eagles don't have a 1,000-yarder rusher, they don't have a 1,000-yard receiver, but they do have 13 regular-season wins, a playoff win over the Falcons and a spot Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.

They're only the fifth team in the last 30 years to play in a conference title game without a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver. And they're the first in 11 years to get this far without anybody even reaching 900 yards.

And without veteran stars like Blount and Alshon Jeffery setting the tone with their unselfish approach, this sort of balanced approach to offense just doesn't work.

“We’ve had games where I didn’t have any carries, we’ve had games where Alshon didn’t have any catches, and we’re winning, and that’s the overall goal," Blount said.

"We couldn’t care less how many catches or how many carries or how many yards any one guy has. We all have one common goal in hand. We all have one thing that we all want more than anything."

We've all seen what happens when a star receiver or running back mouths off about his role or even complain quietly in the locker room to his teammates.

It creates hostility and jealousy. It puts coaches in a tricky position. It can sway a quarterback to target players to keep them happy instead of just running the offense. And worst of all, it can influence younger impressionable players to behave the same way.

These things can all crush a team.

But when guys like Blount, a two-time Super Bowl winner who led the NFL in touchdowns last year, and Jeffery, a Pro Bowler and two-time 1,000-yard receiver, are unselfish, team-first guys, it does the opposite. The young guys always want to be like the veterans, and when those veterans are setting an unselfish tone, it has a ripple effect throughout the roster.

"Me coming in as a young guy I already had that mindset when I got here that whatever the team needs that’s what I’m going to do," rookie receiver Mack Hollins said.

"But when you see your stars doing the same thing? That's huge. If you have guys who are demanding the ball or demanding touches, whatever they’re demanding, once you start demanding stuff, that’s when everything starts to fall apart. 

"You demand stuff, the ball ends up in places it’s not supposed to be and then you stop winning games. Having older guys, your so-called stars, that aren’t worried about what they get, they’re only worried about what we get, that’s critical to our success.”

The last team to reach a conference championship game without a 1,000-yard receiver or runner was the 2006 Patriots. The last to do it in the NFC was the 2003 Eagles and that was more a lack of talent than a real sense of unselfishness. The last NFC team to reach a Super Bowl without a 1,000-yard runner or receiver was the 1996 Packers.

Guess who was a backup quarterback on that team.

Doug Pederson.

It's Pederson who has set the tone for this team's steadfast unselfishness, but it wouldn't work if guys like Jeffery and Blount didn't totally buy in.

"I didn't have to sell it too much," Pederson said. "These guys are unselfish players. They are team players No. 1, and they are great additions to our football team and they have helped us get to this position in this conference championship.

"So it's not a big sell with them. Bottom line is both those guys just want to win the game."

The win last weekend against the Falcons was typical. Six guys had between three and five catches and between 24 and 61 yards.

During the regular season, three receivers had between 789 and 824 yards. Seven others had at least 120 receiving yards. And five running backs had at least 150 rushing yards but none had 800.

It's not going to get anybody to the Pro Bowl, but it sure makes the Eagles difficult to defend.

"It's not basketball, it's football," Jeffery said. "Football, you need everybody. If a lot of players or anyone got a lot of stats besides the quarterback, I mean, I don't think your team is doing too well. I'm just being honest."

Blount had the Eagles' only 100-yard rushing game — against the Chargers back on Oct. 1. Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz and Torrey Smith each had a 100-yard receiving game. 

Nobody had more than one.

"Sometimes you just have to put it all on the line, and you can’t be selfish when everybody has one common goal because you have to make sacrifices for the better of the team," Blount said. "We’ve done that and it’s gotten us this far."

"There’s a lot of things that you can do that could be (selfish) but we’re a family, man. We love each other. We have each others’ back. That’s what’s gotten us this far throughout the injuries of guys and everything else."

The Eagles are one win away from riding this unselfishness, this team-first mentality, to the Super Bowl.

They face the Vikings at 6:40 p.m. Sunday at the Linc in the NFC Championship Game.

If all goes to form, they won't have a 100-yard rusher or receiver, but they'll have something a lot more meaningful.

Another win.

"This is just a pretty unselfish team all in all," Blount said. "From the O-line to the receivers to the quarterback, we have a really unselfish team at every position and that’s what you need. 

"You have guys that go out there and will do anything for a win, and if that requires them not playing as much or playing less, whatever it may be, they’re all aboard. That's why we are where we are."