The Eagles lost to Seattle on Sunday night, a loss in large part of their own making, and while the sky isn’t falling now, there are an awful lot more clouds in it than there were before.
Nothing about the quick building project that blossomed into a 10-1 start has been altered. The Eagles are still a very good team, and this group that is coming together will probably make it to a Super Bowl before it comes apart again. What has changed, however, is the previously growing expectation that the arrival would be this season.
It still could be, but now the margin for error that separates them from three other teams fighting for postseason seeding in the NFC has been sliced to nearly nothing. The Eagles could win the championship without a first-round bye or home-field advantage for most or all of the conference playoffs, but Sunday’s game was a reminder that the road to the Super Bowl is usually not the road.
Here’s what has changed since the loss to the Seahawks: This coming Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams is now a must-win.
Not a must-win for the long-term development of the team. Not a must-win for avoiding a total collapse or any nonsense like that. It is a must-win to give themselves a reasonable chance this season for their first title since the final month of the Eisenhower administration.
Their main rival for the top seed in the NFC and home field through the playoffs is the Minnesota Vikings, also at 10-2. The Vikings are seeded ahead of them now on the fourth tiebreaker, which is “strength of victory.” Minnesota will have a tough game Sunday at Carolina, but then close out the schedule with games against Cincinnati (5-6), Green Bay (6-6), and Chicago (3-9).
To finish ahead of the Vikings, the Eagles need to keep pace on conference record, which is their main tiebreaker (both teams are at 8-1 now), or take the lead with a Minnesota loss to the Panthers and a win over the Rams.
Beating Los Angeles, quite obviously, would also push the Rams down the line and put them two games behind the Eagles with three to play (three games behind effectively, since head-to-head would take precedence in a tie). Los Angeles then will finish at Seattle, at Tennessee, and at home against San Francisco. So, Sunday is must-win for the Rams, too, and they know it.
As for the Saints, the Eagles can’t do much about them but hope their two games against the Falcons yield at least one loss. New Orleans also has the Jets and Bucs and a current 7-2 conference record that is behind only the Vikings and Eagles, so one unexpected stumble by the top teams could vault the Saints.
It isn’t as if the Eagles will be bulletproof after the Rams game. They will go on the road against the Giants, which seems like cake, but finish at home against Oakland and Dallas. Should they win those games based on what we’ve seen this season? Sure. Will they? Not if they continue to turn over the ball and commit crucial penalties.
So, yes, Sunday’s game in the ancient Los Angeles Coliseum is a must-win for the Eagles against a hot team whose offense matches theirs stride for stride. They are tied for most points per game at 30.1, and the Rams are in the top five in the NFL for yards per game, yards per play, and yards per pass play. They are in the top 10 for rushing yards per game, net passing yards per game, and fewest interceptions and sacks per pass play.
If the Eagles don’t find a way to beat the Rams, and if New Orleans wins in Atlanta, the Eagles will have gone from the top seed in the conference to fourth in the span of eight days, and not only will home field through the playoffs be a deep long shot, but even getting a first-round bye will be a coin flip.
The matchup with the Rams would be intriguing, regardless. Los Angeles chose Jared Goff over Carson Wentz in the 2016 draft, and that decision looks a lot better this season under head coach Sean McVay than it did last year under Jeff Fisher. Goff doesn’t have as many touchdown passes as Wentz this year (no one else does, either), but 20 touchdowns and six interceptions aren’t bad in 392 attempts (Wentz has 29 and six in 399 attempts). Goff’s completion percentage is better than Wentz’s (62.2 to 60.7), as is his yards per attempt (8.1 to 7.5), and he has taken fewer sacks (20 to 27).
It’s a really interesting showdown, all other things aside. But there is no putting aside the overall importance of the game. This is the first meeting between the quarterbacks in what might be a decade-long rivalry, but it is also the game that could decide the eventual postseason fate of both their teams.
If the Eagles want to win the Super Bowl this season, or have the best chance to do so, they have to win this game first. Losing isn’t an option.