Last December’s visit with the Los Angeles Rams had a different feel.
The Eagles spent the week in Orange County, Calif., between games in Seattle and L.A. Observers thought the matchup, the 10-2 Eagles visiting the 9-3 Rams, might be a preview of the NFC championship game. (It wasn’t, the Rams lost to the Falcons in a Wild Card round game while the Eagles savored their first-round bye.)
When the Sunday Night Football folks booked this weekend’s Eagles-Rams encounter, a heavyweight rematch, Jared Goff vs. Carson Wentz, was what they had in mind. The Rams have held up their end, they’re 11-2, gunning for the NFC’s top seed. But at 6-7, the Eagles aren’t getting a first-round bye. They almost certainly aren’t going to defend their Super Bowl title in the postseason.
Last year, the Eagles lost Wentz to a knee injury in the third quarter of their 43-35 victory at the Los Angeles Coliseum – a game defensive end Chris Long referred to Thursday as “our last, best, big win in the regular season.” This year, they seem to have lost Wentz before even leaving Philadelphia, after a scan this week showed a persistent back problem, dating back to October, was actually a small fracture.
If the Eagles win, as remote a shot as that seems, they move solidly into Wild Card consideration. If they lose, fans can probably stop clinging to any remaining hope. It will be like last year in that Nick Foles apparently will have to guide them to the finish line Sunday, but even that magic name seems unlikely to produce an upset; once word spread of Wentz’s injury, the point spread hit double digits.
The Eagles are grabbing motivation where they can find it. Cornerback Rasul Douglas, coming off a courageous effort in last week’s Dallas loss, said winning in L.A. is more important this year than last.
“If we didn’t win last year, we would have clinched the next week. So it wouldn’t have really mattered,” Douglas said. “This game is like, if you lose, you can start planning your trips to wherever you’re going in the offseason. So I think this game is kind of bigger.”
Last year, linebacker Nigel Bradham deflected a last-play Rams lateral to defensive end Brandon Graham, who ran it in from the Rams' 16 to set the final score.
Asked about being such a huge underdog this year, Bradham said: “That doesn’t determine who wins and loses the game.”
Bradham is playing with a cast on a broken thumb. Behind him, the only Week 1 starter from the secondary who will play this week is safety Malcolm Jenkins. Last week, four of the top six defensive backs were sidelined.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries, which is crazy. As far as what has happened to us in our secondary, as a defense, [that] is insane,” Bradham said. “I’ve never seen that many starters go down, key players. It is what it is … We do our best to get everybody ready and be able to play and have everybody ready to contribute, to win.
Bradham made the point that injuries notwithstanding, the Eagles put themselves on the brink of elimination. They blew 17-0 second-half leads against Tennessee and Carolina.
“We’ve given a lot of games away, I feel like. We just gotta finish. The reason we are where we are today is because we put ourselves here,” he said. “You look at some of our games … One thing we were doing last year that we’re not doing this year is winning close games.”
Right guard Brandon Brooks said he doesn’t see this year’s L.A. game all that differently.
“To me, it’s like I’m going out there, trying to win a game. Let’s not ignore the obvious – this time last year our record was different, etc., etc., but I think the goal is still the same,” Brooks said. “Go 1-0 to win a game … It’s the same mission, the same goal.”
Jenikins said: “We had a lot more wins last year. I doesn’t change nothin’ when it comes to what happens once the whistle blows. But maybe your mood going into the game’s a little different.”
Long played the first eight seasons of his career as a Ram, albeit in St. Louis. He credited the Rams for building on their 11-5 2017 season, but said this is not a mismatch.
“Obviously, we’re not as popular a team right now, but I feel like we’re just as capable of competing with good teams. We’re going to have to play our best game,” Long said. “It’s going to be a big atmosphere. Those guys have earned that atmosphere every week. They’ve been consistent, they’ve been great all year.”
A questioner mentioned to Graham that this year’s meeting isn’t quite the same level showdown as last time. He disagreed.
“It’s still a showdown, baby! It’s a showdown! Sunday night! Show-down! Game of the week!” Graham said.
Last year, Wentz’s injury overshadowed everything, but the Eagles did leave the tiny visitors’ locker room wearing NFC East Champions hats. They won’t be getting those this Sunday.
“It might not be NFC East [champs], but hopefully, we’re still going. We just need to get a seat at the table,” Graham said. “That’s our main focus. We just got to win out.”
Graham said winning this game would make the kind of statement the 2018 Eagles have yearned to make, though “It’s not going to be easy.”
A year ago, Graham ended his touchdown jaunt celebrating in the stands with Eagles fans, who covered a large swath of stadium.
“I just remember Nigel making [Tavon Austin] cough it up. That ball just right there, right in my hands,” Graham said. “When I looked at the replay, I didn’t even [remember] how I switched hands and did a stiff-arm. I didn’t even know. It just came natural. Then I jumped in the stands; that was cool. That was just natural, too. I saw fans going crazy.”
A year later, very little seems to come “natural.”