The Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings are set to play each other this Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. In order to preview the Eagles’ NFC Championship Game against Minny, I reached out to our friends over at Daily Norseman. The exceptional Christopher Gates kindly took the time to answer my questions about the upcoming game. Let’s take a look at the answers. (Also don’t forget to check out my Q&A exchange over at DN.)
1 - The Vikings went 8-8 in 2016 before improving to 13-3 this year. What’s been responsible for the improvement?
I think the biggest difference is the fact that the offensive line is no longer actively trying to get their quarterback murdered. Everything about the offensive line for the 2016 Vikings was a disaster, from left to right and top to bottom. Because of how awful the offensive line was, the Vikings were limited in what they could do offensively. They had the worst rushing offense in the National Football League and didn’t have time to let any pass plays develop that could go any distance down the field. Fast forward to this year where the Vikings signed two major free agents (Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers) and made one very good draft pick (center Pat Elflein), and the offense has taken off significantly, even with the loss of star rookie Dalvin Cook. After Sam Bradford dismantled the Saints in Week 1, Case Keenum has picked things up from there, and has obviously exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations. The running game has been much improved as well, but none of that happens without a significant improvement in the performance of the offensive line.
2 - What is the Vikings’ biggest strength? Where do they have the biggest edge in this game?
It may sound like a cop out to basically say “the entire defense” is a strength, but it really is. The Vikings have star players at every level of the defense, whether it’s Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph up front, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks at linebacker, or Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith in the secondary. Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman have been building this defense in the style that they want since Zimmer took over in 2014, and now in their fourth year in the system (and hitting on just about every pick they’ve made defensively over that time), the unit has really come together in a big way. The numbers don’t lie. Minnesota was second in the NFL against the run, second in the NFL against the pass, first in the NFL in points allowed, and kept teams from converting third downs at a rate that hasn’t been seen since the league started recording that particular stat. Most of the positions on defense have solid depth as well.
3 - What is the Vikings’ biggest weakness? What concerns you the most about the Eagles?
At this point, it might be in the kicking game. The team has a pretty new long snapper in Jeff Overbaugh, who the team signed after Kevin McDermott got injured in Green Bay in Week 16. Since Overbaugh took over, we’ve seen Ryan Quigley get a punt blocked for the first time this year, and those are the sort of lapses that you can’t have in a game against a team like the Eagles. Hopefully whatever issues there were against New Orleans last week won’t rear their ugly heads again in this one. That and, as anyone that knows anything about Vikings’ history can tell you, pressure kicks and the Vikings. . .well, they don’t exactly get along. I’m hoping that it won’t come to that, but given the way things have gone so far this season, it probably will.
4 - Why is Case Keenum randomly good now? And has he played well enough to be the Vikings’ long-term starter or should they go in a different direction this offseason?
At least part of it has to be chalked up to escaping the purgatory that is being coached by Jeff Fisher. Jeff Fisher could have held the Greatest Show on Turf Rams to under 20 points a game, I’m certain of it. But, in all seriousness, this is the first time that Keenum has really been given the reins of a team, and now that he’s gotten himself acclimated, he seems to be handling things just fine. Pat Shurmur has really done a good job in being creative with the play calling and playing to Keenum’s strengths, and Keenum’s ability to avoid pressure and be accurate in the face of pressure have been a big part of the Vikings’ success this year. As far as what happens beyond this season, that’s a question that I don’t think anybody has an answer to at this point. It might depend on how far Keenum ends up taking the Vikings. There’s also the question of whether or not Shurmur, who is rumored to be the Giants’ next head coach, takes a quarterback with him to New York or not. The Vikings’ quarterback situation is going to be, by far, the most important part of the offseason for this football team.
5 - There’s been some talk about the Vikings’ home/road splits. Do you think they’re a noticeably different team on the road?
I don’t think that they’re that much different, really. They’ve had their three worst games as far as points allowed on the road (allowing 26 to Pittsburgh in Week 2, 30 to Washington in Week 10, and 31 to Carolina in Week 14). Both of those games were filled with what have to be considered uncharacteristic things for the Vikings, whether it was multiple turnovers or uncharacteristic lapses on defense. Certainly the natural playing surface is going to slow down a defense like Minnesota’s a bit, but it slows down the other guys, too, so that shouldn’t be that big a factor. Overall, I don’t think they’re that much different on the road than they are at home, save for a couple of bouts of bad timing.
6 - I can’t not ask about Sam Bradford. How do Vikings fans feel about that trade now with the benefit of hindsight?
I know I probably don’t speak for all Vikings fans on this, but I still think the Bradford move was the right move for the Vikings at the time. Rick Spielman had a team that he (rightly) thought could be a contender that just lost a young, potential franchise quarterback that appeared to be ready to take the next big step forward. Sure, he probably could have rolled Shaun Hill out there for 16 games (or however many games it would have taken for last year’s offensive line to get Shaun Hill killed) and eaten a 4-12 season or something like that, but he decided to try to make a move that he thought would have kept the Vikings in contender status. For the first five games of last year, it sure looked like a good idea. For the first game of this season, before Bradford’s injury, it sure looked like a good idea, too. It would have been really interesting to see what Bradford could have accomplished this season behind an offensive line that gives him more than half a second to survey the field and get rid of the football. But, considering that Rick Spielman made that deal without the benefit of hindsight, I’m not going to rip him for doing what he thought he needed to do to give his team a shot at winning.
BONUS: Who wins this game and why? Score prediction?
This should be an incredibly close football game with these two defenses going at it. It would be almost sacrilegious for me to pick against the Vikings in this one, so I’m not going to. I predict that, for the first time since January of 1977, the Minnesota Vikings find their way to the big game at the end of the season by squeaking out a 20-17 victory, with Harrison Smith intercepting Foles to end a potential game-tying or game-winning drive.