Who would’ve thought the Eagles would be 10-2 and preparing to face a 9-3 Rams squad when the schedule came out in April? Yet, here were are, waiting for an unlikely Week 14 showdown between two of the top teams in the conference.
This is no fluke. The Eagles and Rams both have talented rosters from top to bottom, with ascending, young quarterbacks in the midst of breakout seasons, and outstanding coaching staffs with sharp, fresh minds and time-tested defensive coordinators.
In many ways, these teams are like a mirror image of each other when you begin to compare.
The No. 1 and 2 choices in the 2016 NFL draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, will be linked — and therefore compared to one another — forever. So far, you’d have to take what's behind Door No. 2. Most of their 2017 stats are comparable, but Wentz has nine more touchdown passes with the same number of interceptions and is a threat to run with the football. Wentz is further along in his development in terms of responsibilities at the line of scrimmage, too. Goff looks legit, and time will tell who is going to be better. Right now, it’s probably Wentz.
Slight advantage: Eagles
LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement are great backs. So what does it say that you would trade all of them for Todd Gurley? With 1,502 yards from scrimmage, Gurley ranks second in the NFL behind Pittsburgh's Le’Veon Bell. That’s only 279 yards less than the entire Eagles’ backfield, including Wendell Smallwood and an injured Darren Sproles. There’s a reason Gurley is a rare viable MVP candidate at running back. Who needs three or four backs when one guy can do it all?
Wide receivers and tight ends
The Rams’ leading receiver — Robert Woods with 703 yards — is doubtful to play Sunday with a shoulder injury. Goff still has quality weapons. Sammy Watkins leads the club with six touchdown catches while Cooper Kupp has a team-high 51 receptions playing largely in the slot. Woods has been the most consistent, though. Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor all have at least 40 receptions, 599 yards and seven touchdowns, giving the Eagles one of the most well-rounded receiving corps in the league. The Rams need Woods for there to be any comparison.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai has started to struggle a bit at left tackle for the Eagles the past couple weeks, perhaps a sign Jason Peters' replacement is coming back down to earth. But from center Jason Kelce to tackle Lane Johnson, the Eagles still have arguably the best right side in the NFL. Similarly, from tackle Andrew Whitworth to center John Sullivan, the Rams have one of the best left sides after rebuilding in free agency. However, their weak link is right guard Jamon Brown. All things considered, both are strong units.
Defensive linemen and linebackers
Aaron Donald leads all defensive tackles with 8.0 sacks this season, and that’s after missing the first game of the season over a contract dispute. He’s also tied for eighth among all players with 20 quarterback hits. Donald may very well be the most feared pass rusher in the entire NFL, but beyond him, the Rams’ front seven is a little lacking. Look no further than these run defenses. Los Angeles ranks 27th; the Eagles are atop the league. Donald is great, but there is strength in numbers — such as the collective of Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan and Nigel Bradham up the middle.
Mild advantage: Eagles
Cornerbacks and safeties
These are two of the most opportunistic secondaries in the league. The Eagles hold the slightest of edges over the Rams statistically, with 16 interceptions to 14, and a 77.0 opponents’ passer rating against a 77.3. Once again, the difference may come down to injuries, as Rams free safety Lamarcus Joyner is banged up with a shoulder injury. Even if he plays, Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are head and shoulders above John Johnson III and Joyner, while the cornerbacks are comparable.
Slight advantage: Eagles
The Rams are the rare opponent who can actually boast better special teams than the Eagles. Greg Zuerlein has been by far the best kicker in the NFL this year, and punter Johnny Hekker has been named to the Pro Bowl in three of the past four seasons. Pharoh Cooper has emerged as one of the league’s top return specialists as well, averaging 12.6 yars on punt returns and 28.7 on kickoff returns with a touchdown. Even their coverage units are superb, limiting opponents to 5.3 yards on punts and 20.9 on kicks.
Doug Pederson and Sean McVay are two of the brightest young head coaches in the NFL. It’s not difficult to envision a scenario where these two are meeting in the playoffs for years to come. With such limited résumés, it’s difficult to choose one or the other, so look at their respective staffs. As much credit as Jim Schwartz deserves for turning the Eagles defense around, Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is an all-timer. Phillips has taken a front with only one dominant player in Donald and assembled one of the most disruptive pass rushes in the NFL — almost entirely by his scheme.
Slight advantage: Rams
One could argue the Eagles might be the better product altogether. Of course, that’s at least partly a result of injuries. The Rams likely won’t have their complete receiving corps or secondary intact Sunday. Otherwise, things might look a little different. Even with the perceived advantages in the Eagles’ favor, the Rams can make up the difference with stellar special teams play and coaching. In other words, the comparison between these two opponents is very, very close, injuries or not. Assuming they can keep their respective teams together, it should make for a fun rivalry for years to come.