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Eagles vs. Vikings: Early thoughts on Philadelphia’s NFC Championship Game opponent

Previewing the enemy.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we know the Philadelphia Eagles will be playing the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game this Sunday, it’s time to take a closer look at the matchup. Here are some initial thoughts.

RECAP

  • First, a recap of how the Vikings got to this point. Heading into 2017, Minnesota was looking to rebound from a disappointing 8-8 campaign in 2016. They had to deal with a lot of injuries last season, including one to starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Sam Bradford, whom the Vikings acquired from the Eagles to fill in for Bridgewater, began the 2017 season as Minnesota’s starter. He played well in Week 1 before knee swelling essentially derailed his season. It looked like the Vikings’ hopes were likely over, but then Case Keenum started to play unexpectedly well as the starter. Mike Zimmer’s tough defense boosted the team along the way and the Vikings ended up going 13-3 to secure the No. 2 seed. Just when it looked like the Vikings were going to be eliminated by the Saints in the Divisional Round, rookie New Orleans safety Marcus Williams whiffed terribly on the last play of the game to allow Stefon Diggs to score a walk-off touchdown. The Minnesota Miracle.

VIKINGS DEFENSE

  • The Vikings’ defense is undoubtedly the strength of their team. Minnesota ranks second in defensive DVOA, first in opponent yards per play, and first in opponent points per game.
  • The Vikings’ defense isn’t as good on the road as it is at home. They’ve allowed 19 points per game in away games compared to 12.5 at home.
  • In addition to Zimmer being a good defensive coach, the Vikings just have a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball.
  • Starting defensive ends Everson Griffen (13) and Danielle Hunter (7.0) have combined for 20 sacks this year. Eagles fans might remember starting defensive tackle Linval Joseph from his early years with the Giants. The 6-4, 328 pound Joseph can generate pressure on the interior and stop the run. The Eagles’ offensive line has been very good this year. They face a tough challenge this week. Griffen, who lines up at RDE, going against Halapoulivaati Vaitai is an especially concerning matchup.
  • Vikings linebackers Eric Kendricks (Mychal’s brother), Anthony Barr, and Ben Gedeon ar really good athletes relative to their position. They all tested very well out of college. They’re able to fly around the field.
  • Starting cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes were both first round picks. Rhodes is the better player of the two. As such, Waynes gets targeted more often (102 to 84). Philadelphia hasn’t been getting a ton out of their wide receivers lately, especially since Nick Foles has taken over. Sunday won’t be easy for them. Foles needs to give Alshon Jeffery a chance to make some plays at some point, though.
  • Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo combine to form one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. Probably THE best. Smith has a nose for the ball. He has five interceptions and 12 passes defensed this season. Sendejo’s status for Sunday’s game is uncertain after he took a big hit to the head in the Saints- game. It won’t be easy to take deep shots on this defense but Foles can’t play too timid.

VIKINGS OFFENSE

  • Keenum transformed from a journeyman backup to an actually good starter this year. He’s completed 67.6% of his passes for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a 98.3 passer rating. One thing that really stands out about Keenum is his mobility. No one will be mistaking him for Michael Vick but he’s elusive in the pocket. Despite being the third most pressured (in terms of percentage) quarterback in the NFL this season, he has the second lowest sack rate in the league. As we saw with Russell Wilson, the Eagles defense can struggle to handle mobile quarterbacks. The good news is that Keenum will hold the ball to give the Eagles a chance to sack him. But they really need to get home and finish the play.
  • Minnesota’s offensive line isn’t all that great. The Vikings rank 13th in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus. Here’s how their starters rank by PFF: left tackle Riley Reiff (60th out of 85), left guard Mike Remmers (35 out of 81), center Pat Elflein (32 out of 38), right guard Joe Berger (15th out of 81), right tackle Rashod Hill (66th out of 85). For the second week in a row, the Eagles need to dominate in the trenches. Brandon Graham on Hill should be a big mismatch. Hill allowed one sack, two hits and four hurries on 49 pass protection snaps against the Saints.
  • The Vikings have one of the scariest wide receiver duos in the league. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are really, really good. 2017 stats for Thielen: 91 receptions for 1276 yards and 4 TD. 2017 stats for Diggs: 64 receptions for 849 yards and 8 TD. These guys can win in a number of ways: over the top, underneath, contested catches, etc. Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, and Patrick Robinson (if/when they move into the slot) will have a tough time covering these dudes, especially if Keenum is able to extend plays. The Eagles really need to generate pressure.
  • Kyle Rudolph is a good tight end. Along with Nick Foles, he’s a former Pro Bowl MVP. Rudolph is a big red zone target; he has eight scores this season.
  • Minnesota’s running backs aren’t anything special (except for Dalvin Cook, who is injured). Latavius Murray is averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Jerrick McKinnon is at 3.8. You have to feel good about the Eagles’ top-ranked run defense stopping these guys.

MINNESOTA SPECIAL TEAMS

  • The Vikings rank 18th in special teams DVOA. The Eagles rank 16th.
  • Vikings kicker Kai Forbath is 32 of 38 on field goal attempts. His percentage there ranks 18th in the league. He’s missed three from 30-49 yards. Forbath is also 34 of 39 on extra point attempts, which is the second worst percentage in the league.
  • Minnesota punter Ryan Quigley ranks second to last in net punting average at 39.2 yards.
  • So the Vikings have bad kicking/punting numbers despite playing in a dome. Playing outside on Sunday shouldn’t do them any more favors.
  • Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels ranks sixth in punt return average at 9.5. The Eagles’ coverage team will need to stay disciplined.

MISCELLANEOUS

  • The Vikings are 9-7 in road games since the beginning of 2016. The Eagles are 14-2 in home games since the beginning of 2016 if you don’t count Philadelphia resting their starters in Week 17.
  • The Vikings are coming off a big, emotional win. Maybe that helps fuel them. Or maybe it’s one of those things where you peak too early.
  • The Vikings have a chance to be the first team to ever host a Super Bowl in their stadium. There’s a lot of pressure on them to win.
  • Minnesota had a bye in Week 9 before sitting out in the Divisional Round.
  • Sunday’s high is projected to be 53 degrees. That’s not as cold as you’d like it be when facing a dome team, but it’s still early in the week and things could change. Plus kickoff is at 6:40 PM so temperatures should be dropping during the game.
  • The Eagles have an extra day of rest compared to the Vikings since the Birds played on Saturday. The Eagles also don’t have to travel.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

This should be a tough game, but I like the Eagles’ chances. I think the defense can show up big again. Philadelphia might need to score a touchdown on defense or special teams because moving the ball might not be easy. With that said, you have to feel good about Doug Pederson’s ability to scheme something up against Zimmer.

With everyone expecting this to be a defensive battle, it’ll probably end up being a shootout, because that’s how things go in the NFL. Should be a pretty good game either way.

Winner goes to the Super Bowl.