Here we are. The Minnesota Vikings are set to match up with the Philadelphia Eagles with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
The Vikings are coming off a magical win over the New Orleans Saints, the Eagles enter Sunday on a similar high after beating the Atlanta Falcons in the waiting moments. Both teams went 13-3 in the regular season, both have top rated defenses, both will have different starting QBs under center from Week 1. So who has the roster matchup? Let’s have a look…
Minnesota: Case Keenum
Heading into the Vikings’ matchup with the Saints, the biggest concern was whether Keenum would be able raise his play to playoff level against a Hall of Fame quarterback. He walked away a hero, but his play was up and down throughout. Before the Minneapolis Miracle, Keenum had a 70.1 rating for the game. The Vikings benefited from several defensive pass interferences that helped their cause on offense, but the effiency that had been so impressive in the regular season was lacking. Despite a bad INT that let the Saints back in the game, Keenum hit a big-time throw Jarius Wright to help set up a go-ahead field goal late.
Against the Eagles, playing conservatively may serve Keenum better than taking similar risks downfield as he did while moving outside the pocket against New Orleans. Converting third-and-shorts and scoring in the red zone will win the day for Keenum, not Favre-esque plays on the move. That doesn’t mean everything has to be short. There will be chances to hit on double moves against the Eagles’ defense.
Philadelphia: Nick Foles
Keenum wasn’t the only one who caught a break in the Divisional round. Nick Foles had an easy interception bounce off a Falcons defender and turn into a reception. The play led to a field goal at the end of the half, which was ultimately the difference between the Falcons having to kick to win or score a touchdown. A mistake like that won’t likely be let off the hook by the Vikings’ defense. Late in the game, Foles began operating more efficiently, hitting on quick slants and short passes, even showing some pocket awareness to step up and find receivers. The veteran quarterback has to succeed on short throws or the Eagles’ season will end on Sunday. Against Atlanta, he went 23-for-30 for 246 yards and zero interceptions. A final line like that would give Philadelphia a shot.
Foles hasn’t been very good since his one incredible 27 touchdown, two interception season in 2013, but his 77.1 quarterback rating since 2014 might not tell the story either. Like Keenum, he played on poor teams with few weapons. In Doug Pederson’s offense, he will spread the ball around and give playmakers a chance to turn short passes into long gains.
Minnesota: Latavius Murray, Jerick McKinnon
The Vikings’ running back tandem has their biggest challenge ahead with the No. 1 ranked defense against the run in the NFL. In the win over the Saints, they were neutralized for large chunks of the game with Murray averaging less than three yards per carry and McKinnon only grabbing three passes for six yards, but both also broke through for big touchdown runs.
During the regular season, they were a thunder-lightning combo, seemingly trading off big games from week to week. Murray and McKinnon combined for 1,412 yards rushing and 66 catches for 524 yards receiving. And the vast majority of those yards came after Week 4 when Dalvin Cook suffered an ACL tear.
There are few more important players this week than the Vikings’ two running backs, who will be tasked with setting up second-and-short and setting up play-action throws for Case Keenum.
Philadelphia: Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement
The Eagles’ running game was slowed against the Falcons, gaining just 96 yards on 32 carries. Atlanta loaded up against the run, forcing Nick Foles to beat them. Still the three running backs ended up with 155 yards from scrimmage. Ajayi had a key 32-yard reception on a screen pass and Clement had five catches in the game. Like the Vikings, the Eagles’ runners will play a huge role in their offense’s success or failure. Not only will they have to step up in the passing game, but moving the ball on the ground will help Foles’ cause in run-pass option plays.
In the regular season, the Eagles added Ajayi to stack up their backfield and the move has paid off. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry down the stretch, proving to be a quick, shifty runner with power. Blount just keeps plowing opponents into his 30s. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry this season. Philadelphia will use him often if they get a lead late.
Minnesota: Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Jarius Wright, Kyle Rudolph
If you weren’t sure how good Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs were already, you found out in the Divisional round. Thielen made six grabs on nine targets against one of the elite corners in the game Marshon Lattimore and Diggs came up with the game-winning 61- yard catch. Diggs also had a number of other key plays, including two third-and-long catches. If the Eagles attempt to cover them one-on-one, Thielen and Diggs could have a huge day, especially if double moves are available against Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby. When they are both healthy, the ninth and 10th ranked receivers by Pro Football Focus have proven to be virtually unstoppable.
As for the rest of the supporting cast. Jarius Wright just keeps coming up big whenever he’s asked. He made a diving catch late in the game and had a big play on the first drive. He’s a savvy receiver who knows how to get open and has good hands when the ball comes his way. Rudolph was not a big factor in the Divisional round, but didn’t appear to be majorly hindered by an ankle injury suffered late in the regular year. He will to be a go-to option in the red zone.
Philadelphia: Alshon Jeffrey, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz
One of the things Nick Foles has going for him in the NFC Championship is that he’s got plenty of places to spread the ball around. Between Carson Wentz and Foles, the Eagles threw for nearly 4,000 yards, but none of their receivers cleared 800 and tight end Zach Ertz led the team with 824 yards. Instead, 10 players ended up with double-digit receptions. Players like tight end Tre Burton and receiver Mack Hollins offered a handful of key catches. Burton grabbed five touchdowns and Hills averaged over 14 yards per catch.
To demonstrate the point: The Eagles have the 24th and 25th rated receivers by PFF and sixth and 11th rated tight ends. So only one top player at the position, but several who performed well.
Slowing down the Eagles’ weapons won’t be as easy as sticking Xavier Rhodes on Alshon Jeffrey.
Minnesota: Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers, Pat Elflein, Joe Berger, Rashod Hill
Mike Zimmer made a decision that was somewhat surprising against the Saints: He asked Mike Remmers to play left guard for the first time in his career.
“I think Mike is very aware of the things that happen inside there,” Zimmer said Thursday. “He’s got good quickness, good in the running game. He’s been impressive in pass protection to me. So, we’re just trying to get the five guys who we felt were the best on the field.”
Moving Remmers to left guard put Rashod Hill, a second year tackle, in the spotlight against superstar Cameron Jordan. Zimmer said this about Hill’s performance:
“What I’d like for him to do is play like he did at the beginning of the ball game. I thought he played great the first 30-some plays. Then he kind of hit a little snag, had to get readjusted again. Just be consistent, continue to do it every time. That’s really what he’s been working on the entire time.”
The Vikings’ O-line will have its work cut out against one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. The Eagles rely on their front to create pressure and stuff the run. Hill will draw a lot of speed rusher Brandon Graham and veteran Joe Berger will see Fletcher Cox often.
Since Nick Easton went down, the Vikings have stayed away from screen plays. They may bring them back this week with Remmers feeling more comfortable at LG.
Philadelphia: Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Stefen Wisniewski, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson
The Eagles have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Kelce ranked No. 1 at his position by PFF, Brooks was fourth and Johnson sixth. They are a mobile group who are utilized to their full strengths in creative blocking schemes by Doug Pederson . The Eagles will attempt to help Vaitai take on Everson Griffen with double teams and by moving the pocket or pulling in the run game.
Minnesota: Everson Griffen, Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter
Football Outsiders rated the Vikings the No. 1 defensive line in the NFL by their Defense-Adjusted Value Over Replacement statistic. Against the Saints, the Vikings’ D-line completely shut down New Orleans’ running game, forcing them to rely on the pass early in the game. Linval Joseph will have a huge matchup with Kelce, who is one of the most athletic centers in the NFL. Tom Johnson is always the D-line’s secret weapon. While he doesn’t have huge sack totals, Johnson is among the best in pressures per snap. The Vikings’ D-ends combined for 20 sacks this season, but stopping the run may be a more important task against an Eagles offense that is likely to get the ball out quickly.
Philadelphia: Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, Derek Barnett
Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur compared the Eagles’ defensive line to a hockey team, switching lines with every shift. Part of their success is staying well rested. Graham had the highest percentage of snaps at just 65 percent. Graham is an elite pass rusher, ranking eighth by PFF metrics and Cox has an argument for being the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL. Curry, Long and Barnett are all talented pass rushers. They combined for 13.0 sacks this year. The D-line is at the center of the Eagles’ high turnover marks and No. 1 rated defense against the run.
Minnesota: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Ben Gedeon
The Vikings’ linebackers will be stressed again by a team that runs a lot of different blocking schemes with the offensive line. The Eagles’ linemen get to the second level as quick as any line in the NFL. They ranked No. 2 by Football Outsiders in second level rushing yards and had the most plus-20 runs in the NFL. Barr and Kendricks played well against the Saints’ attack with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, but the Eagles’ rushers carry a bigger load.
Philadelphia: Nigel Bradham, Mychal Kendricks, Najee Goode
By far the most under appreciated unit on the Eagles is their linebackers. Bradham and Kendricks are both quick enough to slow down running backs in the passing game but big enough to handle tight ends in coverage. The Eagles considered trading Kendricks in the offseason because of his contract. Turns out they made the right call since he finished as Pro Football Focus’s sixth best linebacker. Kendricks is especially good in the run game, where he’s strong and instinctual, whereas Bradham ranked among the elite cover linebackers in the NFL.
Minnesota: Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman, Trae Waynes, Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo
The Vikings’ secondary should be giving Nick Foles nightmares this week. Not only does Xavier Rhodes have a great deal of experience guarding Alshon Jeffrey, but Terence Newman is incredibly savvy when it comes to baiting QBs in to bad throws and Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo have the ability to play close to the line of scrimmage, giving no room for the Eagles’ QB to complete underneath passes.
One of the key factors against Philly may be Trae Waynes’ tackling ability. He emerged as a top-notch tackler this season. With quick throws and outside runs likely, Waynes may be asked to make a number of key tackles.
Philadelphia: Ronald Darby, Patrick Robinson, Jalen Mills, Malcolm Jenkins, Ronny McLeod
The biggest weakness on the Philadelphia roster is the two corners Darby and Mills. While Darby is an incredible athlete, he can struggles to play the ball and can be overly aggressive on double moves. Both of those things bode extremely well for the Vikings. That doesn’t mean the Vikings will steamroll the Eagles’ secondary. As a team, Philadelphia picked off 19 passes this year. Robinson is a gifted slot corner who will likely draw Adam Thielen a number of times. Jenkins is one of the best players in the NFL. He’s a brilliant playmaker who can step up into the box and blow up short passes and run plays.
Advantage: Slight edge to Vikings
Prediction: Vikings win 17-10