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Vikings vs. Eagles NFC Championship Preview: Depth Charge

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Minnesota and Philadelphia are the last two teams standing in the NFC because they have built the two deepest rosters.

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings
Will the Miracle momentum carry into Sunday’s NFC Championship Game?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Next man up.

It’s one of the most commonly used clichés in all of football, especially in today’s iteration of the NFL. A simple equation makes the old saying increasingly relevant: players are constantly getting bigger, faster, and stronger while ligaments, tendons, and brains remain largely unchanged. The diagnosis and treatment of injuries is always evolving and rule tweaks to improve player safety are helping, but it will never erase the dangers of a sport that features multitudinous brutal collisions.

In short: players are going to get hurt, so you better plan accordingly. The next man up better be worth a damn; chances are you’ll need him.

One common bond that the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles share as they both stand one victory away from Super Bowl LII: they planned ahead. These two teams finished tied for the best record in the league in large part because they have two of the deepest and most complete rosters in the NFL.

Rick Spielman and Howie Roseman should be looking down at the field on Sunday and beaming with pride. The Vikings and Eagles General Managers have meticulously built their teams over the past several years to find their teams in this position. Both have carefully acquired draft capital, cautiously maneuvered the cap, and relied on their coaches and scouts to build two of the most talented defenses in the NFL.

Of course, even the best-laid plans of birds and Norsemen go often askew. The Vikings were forced to go to Case Keenum in Week 2. Then they were forced to lean on Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon when star rookie Dalvin Cook tore his ACL. Meanwhile, Philadelphia lost MVP candidate Carson Wentz with less than a month remaining in what looked to be a dream season. Suddenly, Nick Foles was at the helm of the top seed in the NFC.

These devastating injuries would have wrecked teams with lesser depth. Just look how the Packers disintegrated once Aaron Rodgers went down. The Texans’ season started circling the drain the moment that Deshaun Watson was out. The Colts’ Luck ran out with Andrew. The Giants were bent without Beckham.

Yet here are the Vikings and Eagles, half of the NFL’s Final Four. Regardless of the outcome, a recent Rams quarterback castoff will be playing for their franchise’s first Super Bowl title two weeks from Sunday. And it was all made possible because they’re surrounded by two of the best-assembled rosters in the league.

We’ll get more into the quarterbacks later on, but for now let’s look at some of the key matchups between these talented teams that will help decide Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

Since we started with a cliché, let’s keep the theme going with another classic: this game could be won or lost in the trenches. The Eagles have an excellent assortment of talent on both sides of the line of scrimmage. On offense, they boast what Pro Football Focus considers to be the best right side of the line in the league. Right guard Brandon Brooks was graded as the fourth best guard in the league by PFF, and he has a first team All-Pro on either side of him. Center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson definitely earned their accolades this season. Along with Stefen Wisniewski, a very serviceable left guard, it’s easy to see why the Eagles finished third in rushing and fourth in yards per carry this season.

Kelce is probably the best run blocking center in the NFL and definitely the linchpin up front for Philly. Kelce (#62) is great at getting to the second level and usually finishes blocks like his opponents were tackling sleds.

The matchup between Kelce and Linval Joseph should be an incredible battle on Sunday. If Linval can do his usual thing and eat up space in the middle, it could go a long way toward shutting down Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount out of the backfield.

Philadelphia only managed 96 yards on 32 carries against the much less formidable Falcons defense last week. Only two of the 25 carries by the running backs went for 10 or more yards while 13 went for two yards or less. I would expect the Vikings to run a lot of Cover 1 on Sunday with Harrison Smith coming down into the box to help stop the run. Making the Eagles one-dimensional and daring Foles to beat them deep seems like a favorable strategy for Minnesota.

That strategy could be even more favorable if the Vikings can get a consistent pass rush. The Eagles could have had three All-Pros on their line if it wasn’t for Jason Peters going on Injured Reserve. In Peters’ place at left tackle is the one weak link on the Philly line: Halapoulivaati Vaitai. “Big V” has struggled at times since taking over as the starter in Week 8, especially against speed on the edge. Everson Griffen should either command double teams or exploit the mismatch early and often to keep Foles uncomfortable.

There is little question that Foles is an obvious step down from Wentz, but it looks like the Eagles have started to figure out the best way to scheme around the drop off at quarterback. The contrast between Foles’ limitations and Wentz’s free-wheeling improvisation is dramatic; it makes sense that it would take Doug Pederson and Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich a while to adjust to the change. After Foles looked helpless down the stretch in the regular season, one could tell that the Eagles staff used the bye week to tweak their offense and put Foles in better circumstances to succeed. The result: a very efficient and mistake-free performance. Foles finished 23 of 30 for 246 yards and was sacked only once.

While the passing offense was better than in recent weeks, it was still limited by Foles. He had some good fortune by not losing a fumbled exchange with Blount. He missed a wide open Trey Burton for what would have been a huge gain on third down late in the first half. Keanu Neal should have had an easy interception at the end of the second quarter only to have this happen:

That play set up an Eagles field goal, which obviously changed the scenarios for Atlanta at the end of the game.

As Chad Graff of the Pioneer Press pointed out, only six of Foles’ 30 pass attempts went 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. The Vikings defense should be able to stop the dinking and dunking that ground down the Falcons last week. Philadelphia had three drives of twelve or more plays against Atlanta; it’s hard to imagine them having that kind of sustained success against the Vikings on Sunday. Even after all the second half madness of the Minneapolis Miracle, Minnesota still held New Orleans to 2-of-9 on third down conversions. That was slightly better than their already historic rate during the regular season. The Vikings have excelled all year at holding opponents among the lowest plays, yards, and points on a per-drive basis. Unless the Eagles get some short fields, points could be hard to come by for them on Sunday.

Short fields were a big reason why the Saints came all the way back from a 17-0 deficit in the Divisional Round. I have heard a lot of Vikings fans explain away the collapse-until-it-wasn’t based on two plays that changed the momentum. Their explanation is basically some version of this story:

“If the Vikings don’t have the blocked punt and the interception to give the Saints short fields, it isn’t that close in the end. As long as they don’t make those mistakes again, they’ll be just fine against the Eagles.”

While the special teams miscues can (and hopefully should) be cleaned up, we probably just have to live with the close calls from Keenum. Part of what has made Keenum so successful this season is also what can make us so nervous. Throughout the year, he has had zero problems throwing it into tight windows and trusting his receivers to go up and get it. They usually aren’t pure “50/50” balls—Keenum has largely done a good job of putting his receivers in a position to succeed—but some of his best passes are also some of his most contested. Now, the interception to Marcus Williams last Sunday was particularly egregious exception. The Vikings can’t have that in a game where field position and points will be at a premium. But even if he avoids the glaring mistake, there’s always the chance that a bounce or two might go the wrong way. And you know what? I’m OK with that. Keenum is kind of Favre Lite in that respect—he has the gunslinger mentality with a bit less of the extremes in either direction.

Keenum will have to play more toward the positive end of the extreme spectrum on Sunday. Much like the Vikings, the Eagles are sound at all three levels with nary a glaring weakness. Philadelphia is ranked extremely close to Minnesota in almost every defensive statistic and advanced metric you can find. They’re practically the “Same Spider-Man” meme of defenses.

As we hinted at earlier, it all starts with the line on the Eagles defense. No team generated more quarterback pressure than Philadelphia this season. Cameron Jordan gave Rashod Hill fits last week; it’s not going to get any easier this time around with the likes of Brandon Graham and Chris Long. Even if the Vikings shift help to Hill’s side, they still have to worry about Fletcher Cox, one of the best pass rushing interior linemen in the league. But then again, Vinny Curry and Timmy Jernigan are really good too. Even Derek Barnett—the guy the Eagles chose with the 14th overall pick from the Sam Bradford trade—has five sacks in rotational duty this year.

The Eagles aren’t just front heavy either. Mychal Kendricks (Eric’s big brother; get ready for lots of shots of their mom in the stands) and Nigel Bradham are versatile linebackers that can cover a lot of ground. Even if you’re able to avoid the defensive line and linebackers long enough, the secondary is no picnic to throw on either. Philadelphia’s pressure up front allows cornerbacks Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson, and Ronald Darby to be very aggressive. Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins are a nice safety combo as well. When the Philadelphia defense is working well at all three levels, they can smother opposing offenses.

So to recap: the Eagles have a deep and talented defensive line, two all-around linebackers, and a bunch of solid players in the secondary to highlight a defense that is well coached and carefully assembled to fit their scheme. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

However, these Eageles aren’t quite the 1985 Bears either. Our own Warren Ludford did an excellent job of breaking down how the Vikings are fairly well suited to attack Philly’s off-man coverage. If Keenum has time to throw, or creates time with scrambles and designed rollouts, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs should be able to find some openings in the secondary. I anticipate Pat Shurmur calling more quick slants and outs for Jarius Wright and Kyle Rudolph to neutralize the pass rush as well. It’s going to be tough, but the Vikings should be able to put together a few scoring drives if they keep Keenum upright and capitalize on their opportunities.

If it seems like I have been a little more business-like than usual with my preview article this week, it’s intentional. My emotions are still a little fried after that ridiculous ending against the Saints. The Vikings actually being on the right side of a historic playoff moment basically had me walking around like a human #DIV/0! error since Sunday night. I suppose I could have gone in on Philly fans like I lambasted Sean Payton last week...but everyone already knows their reputation and Drew Magary has already done it better than I ever could have.

I stuck to the X’s and O’s this week mostly because I don’t think I can properly document just how goddamn bad I want this win as a fan. Being so tantalizingly close to playing the big game in our own backyard has me more on edge than Josh Hartnett’s character in 40 Days And 40 Nights. It’s a chance to erase all the heartbreak. All the misery. All the close calls. It’s a golden opportunity to pay tribute to all the legends that played for this franchise only to fall painfully short of the ultimate goal—an opportunity that can be incredibly fleeting in a sport chock full of parity and change. You never know how long it might take to get back to this point.

I actually started writing for this site because of a playoff game against the Eagles. Watching Tarvaris Jackson lose to Philadelphia in the Metrodome in a Wild Card game just over 9 years ago inspired me to write my very first FanPost on Daily Norseman. It was a rambling mess of largely incoherent hot takes and dick jokes, but apparently it had enough creativity to catch our fearless leader’s eye. Shortly thereafter, Chris brought me on as a front page writer. In fact, my first front page article was nine years ago today. And you’ve been stuck with me ever since. It would be so personally serendipitous to have my favorite team finally make their first Super Bowl of my lifetime by beating the very team that inspired me to start writing about them in the first place.

The Vikings have made the playoffs the third most often of any NFL team since the 1970 merger. The two teams with more postseason appearances—the Steelers and Cowboys—have eleven Super Bowl titles between them. When the Minneapolis Miracle happened on Sunday, perhaps it was a sign that it might finally be our turn.

The 2004 Red Sox needed a Dave Roberts steal to spark a historic comeback from down three games to none against their hated rival. The 2016 Cubs needed to come back from down 3-1, including a batshit crazy Game 7, to exorcise the demons that haunted them for over a century. The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers needed a 3-1 comeback of their own to finally capture their first title. The 2012 Ravens needed that crazy bomb from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones in Denver before going on to win the Super Bowl. Hell, even Tom Brady, the G.O.A.T. himself, could be anywhere between 0-7 and 7-0 in Super Bowls if a handful of plays went differently one way or the other.

I believe in this team. I believe the Vikings will make enough plays on offense, cause enough miscues on defense, and keep riding their miracle momentum to get the win on Sunday. Although Brady and the Patriots dynasty could very well be waiting for the Vikings at US Bank Stadium if they can get past the Eagles, I’d love to see the two-week chess match between Bill Belichick and Mike Zimmer on the game’s biggest stage.

And you know what? I’d like our chances there too.

It’s f***ing time.

Prediction

Vikings 17, Eagles 13


And now for the other Championship Game pick (home team in ALL CAPS):

PATRIOTS 27, Jaguars 17

I think actually Jacksonville has a pretty good chance at pulling the upset. Their defense can create pressure with their front four and force Tom Brady off his spot, which has been the Achilles heel of the Patriots’ dominance in the 21st century. The Jags should be able to pound the ball with Leonard Fournette against New England’s defense that finished 30th in DVOA against the run. Jalen Ramsey and the Sacksonville defenders have the skills to back up their Gary Payton levels of trash talk.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have faced exactly one team that finished in the top half of the DVOA rankings since October. New England has looked dominant, but they should have—most of their games have been against some pretty shoddy competition. The Jags will be a much tougher out.

Even so, Jacksonville basically has to pitch a perfect game. The Pats have the best quarterback/coach combo in the history of football, Dion Lewis creating mismatches all over the field, and the human cheat code that is Rob Gronkowski. Picking the Jaguars seems like a fun idea until you realize you’re willfully neglecting the gaping chasm of talent and experience between the two quarterbacks.

Although it would be the most Vikings thing ever to make their first Super Bowl in 41 years and lose it at home to Blake freaking Bortles, I can’t pick against the Patriots Death Star advancing to their eighth Super Bowl in 17 years. I think the Jags will keep it close early but the Pats methodically pull away in the second half.

Last week: 2-2
Playoffs so far: 5-3
Regular season: 169-87