The NFL is built for scoring. Rules favor quarterbacks and receivers. Records are rewritten every week. A team scores 51 points … and loses to a team that scores 54.
But in a league dominated by O, the biggest game this weekend will be decided by the X factor.
Make that two bolded, underlined, highlighted Xs — a pair of defensive stars who have played their way into the most-valuable-player conversation.
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald of the Rams and outside linebacker Khalil Mack of the Chicago Bears will be on opposite sides of a pivotal NFC game on Sunday night, a matchup so compelling it was flexed into the national prime-time slot.
This season, nobody flexes like Donald and Mack, who play different positions on the defensive line but frequently wind up in the same place, wrapped around quarterbacks like boa constrictors.
“They’re going to have a big impact on the game,” said Tony Dungy, the Super Bowl-winning coach who’s an analyst for NBC. “It’s rare when you have people like this, Reggie White, or Bruce Smith, or Warren Sapp, or John Randle, where the offensive coordinators say, ‘Before we start thinking about patterns and how we’re going to attack them, and what routes we’re going to run, how do I make sure these guys don’t wreck the game?’ ”
Donald, who doesn’t line up in the ideal spot to collect sacks, leads the NFL with 16½ of them. The league’s reigning defensive player of the year also has the most quarterback hits (32), and has forced nine fumbles since the start of last season, two more than second-place Dee Ford of Kansas City. In the era of coach Sean McVay, the Rams are 16-0 when Donald collects a sack.
Mack, who arrived in Chicago this season by way of trade with Oakland, leads the Bears in sacks with nine, and is tied for second in the league with five forced fumbles, one behind Ford. In the first month of the season, Mack became the first player with a sack and forced fumble in four consecutive games since Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis in 2005.
Basically, it’s the NFL’s answer to Godzilla versus Mothra.
Said legendary Bears coach Mike Ditka: “You’d better concentrate on those guys or you’re not going to get anything done.”
With quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Jared Goff having phenomenal years, along with running back Todd Gurley and other offensive standouts, it’s unlikely that Donald or Mack will join Lawrence Taylor (1986) and Alan Page (1971) as the only defensive players to earn league MVP honors.
“They’re not going to give it to a defensive player, in my opinion,” Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “Quarterbacks are always the guy that, and probably well deserved, I mean they cause a lot of points. It’s harder on defense to say, ‘Hey, man, he stopped them from scoring … [Donald has] actually accounted for a lot of points because he’s stopped drives and caused fumbles and all those things.
“I think the only chance that any player would have, and Aaron would have, would be to set the all-time record for sacks, or something like that.”
To match the sacks record set by the New York Giants’ Michael Strahan (22½), Donald would need six in the final four games.
Chiefs left tackle Mitchell Schwartz has played against both Donald and Mack this season, although at his position he found himself blocking the Bears’ standout a lot more.
“As a defensive end, if a guy is good at one or two things, there’s some element that you can stop or hone in on,” Schwartz said. “With [Mack], he’s able to do three or four different things. He’s got elite speed, elite get-off, the quickness, all those athletic traits you want in a guy.
Schwartz said Donald “kind of ruins double teams,” even though teams constantly slide the center over to help the guard block him.
Donald has a knack for lining up in just the right spot, so he can split a double team like a cowboy bursting through saloon doors, whether that’s between the center and guard, or guard and tackle.
“It’s kind of a game within a game with him,” Schwartz said.
Donald is 1½ sacks away from tying the NFL record for most in a season by a defensive tackle, set by Keith Millard of the Minnesota Vikings in 1989.
Not surprisingly, Donald, who played collegiately at Pitt, has caught the eye of a Steelers legend, “Mean” Joe Greene, among the greatest defensive tackles in league history.
“I think he’s the next generation defensive lineman,” said Hall of Famer Greene, a two-time defensive player of the year and centerpiece of the “Steel Curtain” defense. “He’s small for the interior position, but he brings technique and style of play to his position. I can’t compare what he does to anyone.”
Then, Greene did think of a comparison: the Vikings’ Randle, who also has a bust in Canton. At 6 feet 1, 287 pounds, Randle was similar in size to the 6-foot, 284-pound Donald. They also had similar styles, sometimes slippery and sometimes overwhelming.
“John had some unique techniques that allowed him to do what he did,” Greene said. “So [Donald] is a special, special talent. I hope that he has a long career.”
Naturally, Donald was flattered when told of Greene’s comparison.
“That’s a Hall of Famer, one of the best defensive tackles to ever play the game,” Donald told The Times of Randle. “So I definitely as a rookie came in, one of the first things I did was had my coach get me cut-ups of Warren Sapp and John Randle, you know, because similar body types and the way they play and all the success they had.
“So for somebody to even put my name with a name like that is definitely surreal. I wouldn’t want to put my name with that guy yet. I gotta lot more work to do.”
For his part, Bears right tackle Bobby Massie didn’t sound overly concerned when discussing Donald with reporters.
“It’s not the first time we have played a good defense,” Massie said. “Everybody is going to have to be on their stuff. You just have to get your hands on Donald. I’m not taking nothing away from him, but he’s not God. He’s been blocked before. He can be blocked.
“He’s a damn good player. He’s an animal, and from the three-technique? He’s a dog. You’ve just got to get your hands on him and block him. At the end of the day, that’s what needs to happen.”
Of course, whether it’s trying to block Donald or Mack, that’s easier said than done.
“Think about Khalil Mack, he can run 40 yards in 4½ seconds,” said Arizona tackle D.J. Humphries, who has played against both Mack and Donald. “Really, if you compact that down to what he needs to do to get to the quarterback, that’s maybe seven to 10 yards that he has to go.
“People say, ‘Just block that dude.’ I love that thought process. It’s like, yeah, this is the most athletic guy on the field, no question. He’s 6-3, 260 pounds, and runs super-fast. And you want me to run backwards to stop him from going forward? These are the type of battles that offensive linemen are dealing with.”
And they’re the type of battles that might just determine the winner Sunday night.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer
Staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.