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Eagles-Vikings NFC Championship Game Preview
It would be hard to find two teams that are closer mirror images of each other than the teams playing in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. When the 13-3 Minnesota Vikings visit the 13-3 Philadelphia Eagles, both teams will be starting their backup QBs. Both teams lost their most talented RB during the season. Both teams have punishing defenses that are at the very top of the NFL in almost every statistical category. And neither of these teams has ever won a Super Bowl.
The teams are pretty evenly matched, but even ex-Eagles QB Donovan McNabb knows that playoff games can't end in a tie. With all that in mind, let's break down the matchups.
Eagles Offense Versus Vikings Defense
It's hard to take the Eagles regular season offensive rankings at face value, since they are a completely different team with Nick Foles at QB, instead of injured MVP candidate Carson Wentz. Foles played horribly in his last five quarters of the regular season, but then turned in a decent game in the Divisional round win over the Atlanta Falcons. Of course, the Vikings are a completely different test for any QB. Minnesota ranks in the top 2 in almost every defensive category. They are 1st in overall defense (275.9 yards per game), 2nd against the pass (192.4 ypg), 1st in 3rd down defense (25.2%) and 1st in points against (15.8 points per game). Nick Foles needs to simply manage the game, complete the easy passes, take a few shots down the field when the opportunity presents itself and, most importantly, not turn the ball over.
The Eagles like to spread the ball around in the passing game, no matter who is at QB. The problem against the Vikings is that their defense has almost no weaknesses. They gave up a league-low 13 TDs passes during the season. The Eagles best WR is Alshon Jeffrey, but he is going to be shadowed by All-Pro CB Xavier Rhodes. TE Zach Ertz will have to deal with All-Pro safety Harrison Smith, who had 5 INTs this season. Tory Smith is only good at catching passes that bounce off defenders. So maybe it's time for Nelson Agholor to have the signature game of his career. He might be the Eagles best chance in the passing game against this Minnesota pass defense.
The Eagles had the 3rd best rushing offense in the NFL (132.2 ypg), but after averaging 161.9 ypg in the first ten games, they only averaged 98.2 ypg over the last six games. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that defenses can stack the box more with Foles at QB, instead of the multi-talented Wentz. Their best RB is Jay Ajayi, but the Eagles like to rotate backs with LaGarrette Blount and Cory Clement getting a few carries each as well. The problem is that the Vikings were 2nd against the run (192.4 ypg). Minnesota's defensive line is formidable and LBs Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are both very good. What they do with their LBs is called the "double-A gap blitz", which entails lining up between the center and guards and threatening to blitz on every down. That clogs up the running game and forces the QB to make quick decisions. The Eagles love to pull their offensive linemen and that might not be very effective against the Vikings.
The Eagles offensive line has been a strength all year, even after the loss of future Hall of Fame LT Jason Peters. Sunday will present their biggest test of the year. Minnesota DEs Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter combined for 20 sacks. LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai is going to need help with Griffen, who has 13 of those sacks. The rest of the offensive line is filled with Pro Bowlers in center Jason Kelce, RG Brandon Brooks and RT Lane Johnson. Those guys will need to handle their men one-on-one, so Vaitai can get the help he needs. This game really will be won in the trenches.
Vikings Offense Versus Eagles Defense
The Vikings have a backup QB of their own, but Case Keenum has been playing almost the entire season, after Sam Bradford got hurt early in the season. And honestly, is Keenum even a step down from Bradford? Probably not. Keenum finished 7th in passer rating (98.3), 2nd in completion percentage (67.6%) and only threw 7 INTs in 481 attempts. In short, he simply didn't make the big mistakes and let his defense win games for him. Sounds a bit like Nick Foles, doesn't it? The Vikings offense was only 11th overall (306.5 ypg) and 11th in passing (234.6 ypg), but they were a respectable 10th in scoring. Luckily for the Eagles, their defense was 4th overall (306.5 ypg) and 4th in points against (18.4 ppg). The problem is that they were 17th in passing defense (227.3 ypg), mainly because so many teams had to throw the ball to catch up when Wentz was having his MVP-worthy season.
Much like the Eagles, the Vikings like to spread the ball around on offense. But they do have a surprising star in undrafted WR Adam Thielen, who had 91 receptions for 1,276 yards. They also have Divisional round hero, Stefon Diggs, who hauled in that 61-yard catch and run in last week's win over the Saints. And TE Kyle Rudolph can't be ignored even if he did fade down the stretch. The Eagles CBs are going to have their hands full on Sunday, but as long as they don't go diving at air when a WR makes a catch, they'll be fine. They have simply tried to keep receivers in front of them and make the tackle all season and it has worked. The Eagles defense has only given up 3 TDs the last three weeks, so they are a classic bend-but-don't-break pass defense.
The Eagles Can't Miss Tackles This Badly
The Vikings like to run the ball a lot to keep the pressure off Keenum, which explains their No. 7 ranking in rushing (122.3 ypg). But nobody stopped the run better than the Eagles during the regular season. Their No. 1 ranked run defense (79.2 ypg) essentially made teams one-dimensional. The Vikings lost rookie Dalvin Cook early in the season and relied on Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. Neither is flashy, but Murray is the faster back, who the Vikings might look to get out on the edge. There is simply no way the Vikings get anything going on the ground against this Eagles front seven, led by DT Fletcher Cox, who had seven tackles and a sack last week against the Falcons.
Speaking of Cox, he needs a repeat performance against an improved Minnesota offensive line, that lacks any stars that can stop him. Sure, DE Brandon Graham and the other rotating defensive linemen on the Eagles need to get pressure on the QB and stop the run, but Cox is the key. If he can collapse the pocket and get in the short Keenum's face (he might be 6 feet tall), he can disrupt the Vikings passing game and possibly even force a bad pass that can be picked off.
Does Defense Really Win Championships Anymore?
Continuing the trend of these teams being similar, both employ kickers who seem better on the long field goals and somehow miss extra points. They both also hit 53-yard FGs last week. Eagles kicker Jake Elliott has made 27 of his last 30 attempts, including 6-for7 from 50-plus. But he has missed 3 PATs, including one last week. Minnesota's Kai Forbath has made 32 of 38 attempts this season, including 6-for-9 from 50-plus. And for anyone thinking he's just a product of the dome he kicks in, Forbath actually is more accurate outdoors (88.2 %) than indoors (83 %) over his career. The Eagles return game is almost non-existent, but they do block an occasional punt. The Vikings, on the other hand, have a dangerous return man in Marcus Sherels, who has five punt return TDs in his career.
Doug Pederson actually coached a great game last week, in molding his game plan around what Nick Foles does best. Foles excelled with the run-pass option plays, especially the quick throws off those options. Pederson will need to come up with an even better game plan this week against the best defense in the NFL. Of course, the game might just be won by what Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz does on his side of the ball. Schwartz doesn't blitz much, but he will need to effectively pick his spots to disrupt the Vikings passing attack and a few turnovers certainly would help. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is a defensive guru who is credited with his team's success on that side of the ball. You can't get much better than the Minnesota defense, so he's certainly doing something right. On offense, former Eagles offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmer took over the Vikings offense in the middle of last year and made it appreciably better this season. He'll be roaming the sidelines as the Giants head coach next season, so get used to seeing him Eagles fans.
Much is always made of dome teams playing outside in the cold. Normally that holds true, but this Vikings team isn't your normal dome team. For one thing, the Vikings played the 2014 and 2015 seasons in an outdoor home stadium, while their current dome was being built. The Vikings are also a defensive team and defense isn't affected by the elements as much as offense is. As a matter of fact, the Vikings were 4-2 in outdoor road games this year. On the flip side, they did lose their only two outdoor road games they played against playoff teams; Pittsburgh and Carolina. They gave up a combined 57 points in those games and an additional 30 points in a road win in Washington. Apparently their defense isn't as good without their loud dome-field advantage making it hard for the opposing offense. This game being in Philadelphia is still a huge advantage for the Eagles.
This is going to be an low-scoring, old-school defensive struggle. The team that creates the most turnovers will probably win the game. Personally, I think that will be the Eagles due to their home-field advantage. The Vikings won't be able to run the football at all and Case Keenum just isn't a great QB who can carry his team to victory. The Eagles defensive front will win the battle in the trenches, while the Eagles offense will churn out just enough offense to put some points on the board, likely with the aid of a turnover or two.
Eagles 16 - Vikings 13