By Kevin McGuire
The stage is set for the NFC Championship Game. The Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings each bring top defenses to the table, and hope to grab one more win with a backup quarterback for the right to advance to the Super Bowl to face the AFC Champions in Minnesota. If the Vikings are going to go on the road and win their first road playoff game since 2005, they will need the defense to set the tone against an Eagles offense that still seems to be without a bit of an edge without Carson Wentz.
Here is a look at the final hurdle standing in the way of the Eagles and a spot in the Super Bowl.
Vikings Record: 13-3 Regular Season, 1-0 Postseason
The Vikings exceeded expectations this season by going 13-3 and keeping the pressure on the Eagles for the top spot in the NFC playoff field. The defense has been the story of the season for Mike Zimmer’s Vikings, helping the team win games with backup quarterback Case Keenum keeping the offense on steady footing. The 13 regular season wins is the most by the Vikings in a season since winning 15 games in 1998. Last weekend, the Vikings stunned the New Orleans Saints with a last-second touchdown to advance to the team’s first NFC Championship Game since the 2009 season.
The Vikings own the advantage in the all-time series with a 13-10 record against the Eagles, but the Eagles are 3-0 all-time against the Vikings in postseason play. The most recent playoff meeting occurred in 2009, with the Eagles upsetting the Vikings at home, 26-14. The last postseason meeting in Philadelphia came in 2005 in a divisional round matchup, when Freddie Mitchell caught a miraculous touchdown and thanked his hands for being so great afterward. The Eagles went on to the Super Bowl that season.
Vikings on Offense
The Vikings lost some key offensive players early this season, including former Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford and rookie running back Dalvin Cook. Case Keenum has stepped into the lead role this season and Bradford will be the team’s backup option this weekend, leaving Teddy Bridgewater out of the mix. Keenum has thrown 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions in the regular season, and the Eagles will look to keep him from feeling too comfortable in the pocket.
Stefon Diggs was the hero for the Vikings on Sunday with his touchdown grab on the final play of their playoff win against the Saints, and he will be a threat against the Eagles secondary this weekend as well. Diggs has caught 64 passes for 849 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns (veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph also has eight touchdown receptions). Diggs may be the big play threat inside the red zone, but leading receiver Adam Thielen has caught 20 passes for a gain of 20 or more yards this season, and has a team-leading 1,276 receiving yards on 91 receptions. The Eagles’ secondary will be tested mightily this weekend.
During the postseason, the Vikings have had the second-best third-down conversion rate (58.8 percent) behind only New England. The Vikings’ offensive line has done a solid job of protecting Keenum as well. During the regular season, the Vikings allowed just 27 sacks, which tied for fourth fewest sacks allowed in the NFL.
Vikings on Defense
Minnesota is thriving on the strength of their defense this season. Heading into the playoffs, the Vikings owned the NFL’s top-ranked defense after allowing just 275.9 yards per game and holding opponents to just 15.8 points per game. Simply put, moving the ball and scoring against the Vikings has not come easily for anyone this season. In the three losses Minnesota suffered this season, they fell 14-7 against the Detroit Lions, 26-9 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that saw Pittsburgh settle for four field goals without Sam Bradford, and a back-and-forth game against the Carolina Panthers that ended 31-24. The Eagles may need to win a defensive battle like the Lions did if Philadelphia going to reach the Super Bowl.
Both teams will bring the NFL’s top two rushing defenses to the table, with the Eagles allowing 79.2 rushing yards per game during the regular season and the Vikings allowing 83.6 ypg. If there is one advantage the Eagles have against the Vikings, it may come in the turnover department. The Eagles were among the NFL’s best in taking the football away (31 takeaways), while the Vikings defense had just 19 takeaways this season. If Nick Foles continues to play it safe with the football and can avoid any costly turnovers, then the Eagles may be able to sustain enough scoring drives against one of the best NFL defenses to scratch together a win.
Vikings Players to Watch
Latavius Murray, Running Back: If the Eagles can prevent Murray from reaching the end zone, their chances of a win could increase. Murray has scored eight touchdowns in games won by the Vikings this season, but he is scoreless in games Minnesota loses.
Everson Griffen, Defensive End: The biggest concern the Eagles should have when on offense is finding a way to prevent Griffen from having an impact. Griffen had 13 sacks this season, and he added one more last weekend against the Saints while racking up six tackles.
Expect this game to be all about the defense, because two of the best defenses in the NFC are about to go head-to-head with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The Vikings have thrived all season long with their defense. This is a situation where the home-field advantage may be the deciding factor, because two of Minnesota’s losses have come on the road. In each, the defense could not dominate the way they typically have at home, either. Just as was the case last week against Atlanta, the offense simply has to find a way to allow the running game to control the game for the Eagles, even against a stingy defense like the Vikings. Do that and allow Nick Foles to keep a comfort zone, and it all comes down to not making any costly mistakes with the football. The room for error is razor thin this weekend.