Good morning, Eagles fans. This is the Eagles' seventh day on the West Coast, and they'll have their final full practice before Sunday's game against the Rams. The Eagles can clinch the NFC East title with a win or Dallas loss. They're expecting many Philadelphia fans to join them in California for the game. Are you one of them? Please share your stories and travel experiences. You're reading the Friday edition of Early Birds. It's free for anyone to sign up here to receive in your inbox every weekday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
Stopping the run, better blocking, and more discipline are keys to the game
Stop Todd Gurley: There's much discussed and written about Carson Wentz vs. Jared Goff, and it's no doubt a fun story line to explore. But if I was Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the game plan would be focused on Rams running back Todd Gurley. He's the difference-maker on the Rams offense. The Eagles boast the No. 1 rush defense in the NFL, but Gurley is the best running back they've seen this season — better than Kareem Hunt, better than Jordan Howard. He's the NFL's second-leading rusher, and the Eagles notice his size (6-foot-1, 227 pounds), patience (his running style was compared to Le'Veon Bell), and complete skill set. The Eagles also must account for Gurley in the passing game. Gurley has 48 catches and averages 11.7 yards per reception. The Rams won't beat the Eagles without a big game from Gurley. If the Eagles can stop him like they've done other running backs this season, they'll have a good chance to win.
Improve blocking: The Eagles' offensive line must play better on Sunday. They'll have chances to run against the Rams' 27th-ranked rush defense, and I'd expect Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount to be relied upon to make it a balanced offense. But it starts with the offensive line. Stefen Wisniewski has a tough matchup inside against Aaron Donald, one of the elite defensive players in the NFL. The Eagles will help him, but left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai also must play better than he did last week. Wentz can't take big hits, and the Eagles need success on the ground to keep the Rams honest. It's going to start with the offensive line — especially Wisniewski and Vaitai.
Limit penalties: The Eagles' seven penalties last week factored into their second loss of the season, and there were warning signs one week earlier when they committed 11 penalties. It's possible to win when playing undisciplined, but it won't be easy against a good team — especially if those penalties extend drives on defense. The Eagles need to take advantage of what might be a relatively welcoming road environment. Unlike the Seahawks game, when it was an intimidating prime-time environment against a desperate team, I don't think Sunday will feel like a true road game for the Eagles. Similar to the Chargers game earlier this season, look for a loyal Eagles contingent to travel to Los Angeles. That should help Carson Wentz at the line, where the silent count might not be as critical. In fact, it could be tough for the Rams if it's anything like the Chargers game. The Rams might need to use the silent count. The Eagles will be acclimated to the West Coast after spending a week here, so they won't have the same type of travel fatigue. It would be a surprise if they don't play a cleaner game after a week-long emphasis.
What you need to know about the Eagles
Sunday will be another big stage for Carson Wentz, and Les Bowen says there shouldn't be concern about whether he can handle it.
Zach Ertz practiced on a limited basis, but he has not yet cleared the league-mandated concussion protocol.
Eagles RB Darren Sproles does not want his career to end with an injury, and he said he's leaning toward returning — not retiring.
Wentz leads Pro Bowl voting with one week to go. Five other players on the Eagles lead their position's voting in the NFC, too.
Nigel Bradham is using Mike Trout's locker in the Angels' clubhouse. Les has more in his notes.
All four beat writers predicted an Eagles win on Sunday.
If you missed Thursday's Early Birds, find out what Wentz thinks about the hits he took last Sunday.
3 Questions With | Wide receiver Torrey Smith
Zach Berman: You have experience against the Rams in recent years from the NFC West. What's different about them this season?
Torrey Smith: "To me, the Rams have always had a Super Bowl-caliber defense. The offense has always kind of been playing catch-up. Right now, that's not the case. They're balling on both sides of the ball. They're a very dangerous team, very talented. They're playing very well."
Zach Berman: Earlier in the year, you said we'd need to wait until late in the season to start believing which teams are good. What do you see now?
Torrey Smith: "You're going to see it. Look at the playoff contenders all around the league. We still technically haven't clinched yet. But you look at all the people at the top, it's a bunch of teams with two or three losses in the NFC. You look on the AFC side, it's teams with like six losses — so it's like a handful of teams battling for it. This is the time that you wait for in the season where it gets exciting for everyone. For us, we're lucky we handled business early in the year that we're in a pretty good position going forward."
Zach Berman: What can the veteran players the Eagles added this season provide this time of year?
Torrey Smith: "Just the experience. Pushing the tempo, knowing you don't let up. You grind harder this time of year. Everything picks up. For us, that's just what it is this time of year. Watch the way LeGarrette's practicing, myself, we know we have to bring it each and every day. … We have a great mix of veterans and young guys. We have to ramp it up and know this is the time to step it up. It's no time to relax."
Elsewhere in the NFL
Eli Manning is back as the starting quarterback for the Giants. Will he be there next year? [Newsday]
Is Washington left tackle Trent Williams tough or foolish? [Washington Post]
Cowboys wide receiver Cole Beasley is seeing different coverages this season. [Fort Worth Star-Telegram]
The Rams are expecting LB Alec Ogletree to play against the Eagles. [Los Angeles Times]
The Browns passed on Carson Wentz. On Thursday, they fired their general manager. [USA Today]
The Falcons held off the Saints in a big NFC match-up Thursday night. [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]
From the mailbag
I actually think Brandon Graham has been an effective pass rusher. His sacks are up (he has a career-high 8.5) and his pressure stats are also among the best at the position. He moves inside on some passing downs to get more pass rushers on the field. It allows the Eagles to use another defensive end in the lineup, and Graham is skilled enough as an interior rusher to make it work. I actually like when they do it. It's not good for Tim Jernigan's production, but it benefits the defense.
Keep waiting. You're going to see more Jay Ajayi (No. 36) late in the season; you saw hints last Sunday when he played 41 percent of the offensive snaps. I'd expect his role to grow on third downs. But the Eagles will still keep LeGarrette Blount (No. 29) and Corey Clement (No. 30) involved. This won't be a situation like the Rams, where Todd Gurley has 65 percent of the carries this season. I even asked offensive coordinator Frank Reich this week why he prefers a committee. "I suppose there are pros and cons," he said. "But like anything, you play the cards and the hand that you have, and the hand that we've been playing has been working for us, where it keeps them fresh. I feel like we've built in enough rhythm for them at times. I'm sure every back always wants more carries, but so far it's been working pretty well for us."
I don't think the Eagles held much back against Seattle. You left something out of that "perfect storm" — they played against a really good quarterback. Russell Wilson hurt the Eagles as much as anything else. He's a special player. The Eagles weren't thinking about another meeting in the postseason, and it's unlikely they'll hold things back this weekend. If they have a big lead or have a big deficit, perhaps they don't put something on film. During November, when they were blowing teams out each week, I thought they held back when the games were already decided. But I don't see Doug Pederson considering potential playoff matchups at this point. And I don't think you need to overthink why they lost last week. They played a star quarterback and committed a red-zone turnover. Hard to do that and win. I think Carson Wentz will be the better quarterback this week and the Eagles win.