NFC title game preview: Minnesota Vikings vs. Philadelphia Eagles
When the Vikings have the ball: The Eagles’ antennae will be up for “Seven Heaven,” the play call that gave us the Case Keenum-to-Stefon Diggs walk-off touchdown to change Minnesota’s postseason misfortunes.
For Keenum and coordinator Pat Shurmur, leaning on Diggs and Adam Thielen again — the Vikings’ star WR duo that shined in crunch time vs. New Orleans — could be their best path to victory. One reason is because they’ve blossomed into reliable and fearsome weapons. Another is because Philadelphia boasts the league’s stingiest run ‘D,’ with DTs Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan, LBs Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks and safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod nearly impenetrable up the middle.
Shurmur will attack the flanks of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s wide-9 alignment with RBs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon, particularly behind LT Riley Reiff and converted LG Mike Remmers. But it’s through the air, often on extended plays thanks to Keenum’s slipperiness, where CBs Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and nickel Patrick Robinson must be ready.
Keenum’s pressure avoidance worsened in the second half of 2017 and again on Sunday when a Saints ‘D’ without the pass rushers of the Eagles tallied seven hits on the Vikings’ QB, so Minnesota can’t let Cox, Brandon Graham and Co. wreck the plan.
When the Eagles have the ball: Nick Foles might lack Keenum’s pocket creativity, but he was the more precise thrower in the divisional round, completing 23-of-30 turnover-free attempts, getting sacked only once and being hit four times.
Foles also didn’t get as much help from his run game, where Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount combined for only 73 yards on 24 carries, including a short Blount touchdown. But Doug Pederson’s Eagles — the NFL’s leading ball-control attack — remained committed on the ground vs. Atlanta (32 carries) and surely will again against Minnesota’s run ‘D’ (No. 5 in yards per rush), anchored by Linval Joseph but possibly without run-stuffing NT Shamar Stephen.
With Alshon Jeffery drawing All-Pro Xavier Rhodes, and Torrey Smith getting speedy Trae Waynes, the passing-game battles to watch could be over the middle, where the Saints gave Minnesota trouble in the second half. Slot WR Nelson Agholor vs. Mackensie Alexander, and TE Zach Ertz vs. Harrison Smith and LBs Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are matchups the Eagles must win. The Vikings could miss S Andrew Sendejo (concussion), the physical safety who intercepted Drew Brees prior to being hit by Michael Thomas’ blind-side shot.
Special teams: PKs Kai Forbath and rookie Jake Elliott both rebounded from earlier misses last weekend. Forbath drilled a franchise postseason record 53-yarder in the final two minutes following a 49-yard miss, while Elliott accounted for all nine second-half points vs. the Falcons to erase a first-half deficit he contributed to with a missed extra point. The Eagles both muffed a punt and blocked one vs. Atlanta, while Minnesota’s Ryan Quigley had his first touchback and punt blocked of the season but pinned two inside the 20. Both clubs’ third phases are strong, even with Forbath’s and Elliott’s relative playoff inexperience.
Coaching: Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer and Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson are well deserving Coach of the Year candidates. The all-business Zimmer turned the page quickly after Sunday’s miracle finish by pointing out the mistakes that necessitated it. Pederson, like Shurmur, runs a QB-friendly offense with a willingness to tinker in games to increase the comfort level of Foles and Carson Wentz with tempo and other adjustments. Zimmer and Schwartz are nothing if not aggressive defensive play callers.
Prediction: Forget team of destiny, or the former Rams QBs-Sam Bradford trade storylines and remember: Minnesota is the hotter team with more QB continuity. Keenum avoids the near fatal turnover he committed last week, with McKinnon and TE Kyle Rudolph supplementing Diggs and Thielen as receivers. Foles struggles to sustain drives with Everson Griffen chasing him regularly. The Vikings edge the Eagles in a defensive struggle to make history, hosting and playing in Super Bowl LII.