Preview: Vikings vs. Eagles
Who: Minnesota Vikings (5-9) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (10-4).
When: 7:20 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Lincoln Financial Field (capacity: 69,144), Philadelphia.
Line: Eagles by 14.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (interim, 2-2); Eagles -- Andy Reid (12th year, 127-79-1).
Series: Eagles lead 12-11.
Last meeting: Tarvaris Jackson completed 15 of 35 passes for 164 yards with an interception as the Vikings lost 26-14 in a wild-card playoff game on Jan. 4, 2009, at the Metrodome.
At stake: Frazier's chances to remove the interim tag might be in trouble if the Vikings can't at least keep this one competitive. After beating lousy teams in Frazier's first two games, the Vikings have gotten rocked by the New York Giants (21-3) and Chicago Bears (40-14) -- dropping their record against teams that currently are .500 or better to 0-9 by a more than 2-to-1 scoring ratio (232-114). Another half-hearted washout wouldn't help Frazier's cause, that's for sure. And it may be unavoidable against an Eagles team that needs a win to stay ahead of the Giants in the NFC East Division race and keep pace with the Bears for the second first-round bye.
Vikings: S Tyrell Johnson (knee) is out. QB Brett Favre (concussion/neck/right shoulder) is doubtful. RB Adrian Peterson (knee) and FS Madieu Williams (concussion) are questionable. S Jamarca Sanford (concussion) and CB Frank Walker (hamstring) are probable. LG Steve Hutchinson (thumb) was placed on injured reserve on Monday.
Eagles: MLB Stewart Bradley (elbow) is out. LB Keenan Clayton (hamstring) is doubtful. DT Mike Patterson (knee) is questionable. G Nick Cole (knee), SLB Moise Fokou (wrist), TE Clay Harbor (abdomen), WR DeSean Jackson (foot), RT Winston Justice (knee), CB Asante Samuel (knee) are probable.
Five things to watch
Mike check: At 30 years old and only 19 months removed from prison, Eagles QB Michael Vick might be the NFL's MVP. He ranks second among qualifying passers in average (8.4) and fewest interceptions (fifth). He's third in passer rating (103.6). He also has run for 613 yards and eight touchdowns in 11 starts, and his combination of a strong arm and elite mobility is dangerous in more ways than one. Perhaps more than any other quarterback, Vick can make plays diagonally down the field after breaking the pocket. So, it's essential for defenders -- and safeties in particular -- to remain disciplined instead of overreacting to quarterback movement. Williams has been struggling and probably won't play, giving S Jamarca Sanford his first start this season. But Sanford's strength is against the run, and whomever starts is backing up a cornerback corps with one legitimate starter (Antoine Winfield) and a bunch of subpackage-type players plugging holes. A Vikings pass rush that underwhelmed against Chicago has to do its part, too -- not only in trying to put heat on Vick, but staying in lanes to contain him, too. On the back end, the mantra should be simple: when in doubt, stay deep.
Under cover: Vick isn't the only reason the Eagles offense leads the NFL in total offense (403.9 yards per game) and is second in scoring (29.4). HB LeSean McCoy has surpassed the 1,000-yard barrier rushing on only 194 carries (5.3 average) and leads all running backs with 74 receptions. WR Jeremy Maclin has caught half of Vick's 20 touchdown passes, including 45-, 83- and 48-yarders. And speedy WR DeSean Jackson has eight catches of at least 40 yards, 71.1% of his 45 receptions have gone for first downs and his 22.8-yard average leads all qualifying receivers. The Vikings defense has hemorrhaged big chunk-yardage plays of late -- most notable, a 73-yard run by HB Brandon Jacobs and a 48-yard touchdown run by HB Ahmad Bradshaw against the Giants, and a 67-yard touchdown reception by WR Johnny Knox against the Bears. Frazier's Cover-2 defense is built to force teams into dinking and dunking, but these are the sorts of breakdowns that happen when a team's focus wavers at the end of a lost season. If the Vikings want to have any chance here, the backbreakers just can't happen.
Webb's real chance: This game was "flexed" to a national broadcast largely to showcase a Vick vs. Favre showdown. That was before Favre missed the Giants game and then got knocked out against the Bears in the second quarter with a concussion, symptoms of which remained as of Friday afternoon. Favre has shown he's capable of surprises, of course. But the odds looked good as of Saturday night the Vikings would start sixth-round draft pick Joe Webb, who showed against Chicago he's not ready for prime time. The Eagles defense relies heavily on sending different combinations of zone blitzes to confuse protection calls and a quarterback's reads -- seemingly a perfect recipe for making life miserable on Webb and the Vikings' short-handed offensive line. The Eagles lead the NFL in interceptions (23), rank second in takeaways (32) and also are in the top 10 in sacks (35). RE Trent Cole has a highly favorable matchup against LT Bryant McKinnie on the blind side. It's on Vikings coaches to figure out how to get Webb into some sort of comfort zone, perhaps through expanded use of shotgun formations, designed QB motion and Football 101-type plays more similar to how things were run at UAB.
Ride, Adrian, ride: That said, the best way to slow a blitz-heavy game plan is to run the ball effectively, and the Vikings have a much better chance to do that when Peterson is in the lineup. Frazier and Peterson both expressed confidence through the week he would play. However, the nature of his injury -- bruising around Peterson's right knee and thigh that causes periodic tightness in his quadriceps, potentially exacerbated by cold weather -- means his availability could be touch-and-go. The Vikings' offensive line has struggled to get movement since Hutchinson broke his right thumb on Nov. 28 at Washington. But if any back can create his own space, it's Peterson. Bust a blitz or two with the right run call, and any defensive coordinator -- even aggressive Eagles DC Sean McDermott -- has to start thinking twice about overloading too often. Methodical, clock-eating drives are a good way to quiet a loud home crowd, too.
Special assignment: Injuries have depleted the Vikings' coverage units, but that's no excuse for how they've struggled against top return men. The Jets' Brad Smith had an 86-yard kick return on Oct. 11. Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling had a 96-yarder for a score on Nov. 7. Washington's Brandon Banks had a 65-yard kick return on Nov. 28. And Chicago's Devin Hester has busted four returns of 40-plus yards against the Vikings -- including a 79-yard kick return and a 64-yard punt return that broke things open in the third quarter of Monday's blowout. Once among the NFL's leaders, the Vikings have plummeted to 29th and 25th in opponent kick-return average (25.1) and net punting average (39.3), respectively. Now they get to take on Jackson, who sunk the Giants with a 65-yard punt-return score last week. The weather surely won't help specialists on either team -- or either offense, for that matter. High winds and snow were expected to slam Philadelphia beginning early Sunday morning.
The Eagles are a matchup nightmare even without considering the difference in motivation. The difference in turnover margin -- the Eagles are tied for second in the NFL at plus-14, while the Vikings are dead last at minus-14 -- probably foretells how this one will go. And bad weather, while mitigating in terms of the spread, probably doesn't favor a Vikings team that sure didn't look like it wanted to be in the elements on Monday. If the Vikings even make keep this game close into the fourth quarter, it'll be a surprise.
Prediction: Eagles 30, Vikings 13.