6:40 PM EST, FOX – Line: Vikings -3, Over/Under: 38.5
Virtual mirror images collide in Conference Championship Sunday’s second installment, as the Philadelphia Eagles host the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both of these combatants easily won their respective divisions, on the strength of balanced Offenses and physical, staunch Defenses, with their Coaching Staffs deftly managing unexpected transitions to a pair of unheralded Quarterbacks who weren’t remotely in their plans at the beginning of the campaign, only to play crucial roles in their advancement to this point. For the Vikings (13-3, 1st in NFC North), the season changed when their initial Starting Quarterback, Sam Bradford, was placed on season-ending Injured Reserve for the third time in his career, after the team’s Medical Staff deduced that his surgically-repaired knee needed to be cleaned out. Of course, Bradford had taken over for another injured Quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, who had missed the previous term in it’s entirety after a devastating knee injury of his own, leaving Mike Zimmer and his Coaching Staff to turn to Case Keenum (67.6%, 3,547 YDS, 6.78 NY/A, 22 TD, 7 INT, 71.3 QBR), who if we’re all being honest, had failed to impress in either of the previous two stops of his largely uninspiring career. Before signing him to a One-Year Deal in the Summer, the 29-Year Old had made just Twenty-Four Starts in Five Seasons with the Houston Texans and St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams, earning a mediocre 9-15 Record (.375), while tossing Twenty-Four Touchdowns in comparison to Twenty Interceptions, and never sporting a QBR above 52.2. So of course, with this being the National Football League, forget everything you knew about this guy, and accept the revelation that he’s been for Minnesota in 2017. Seriously folks, Keenum has been nothing short of a modicum of efficiency for this team, even placing second in the league in Completion Percentage (67.6%) and QBR (71.3), with both of those statistics ranking above the likes of venerable contemporaries such as Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, last year’s MVP Matt Ryan, or even Tom Brady. Offensive Coordinator (and unofficially the New York Giants’ new Head Coach) Pat Shurmur has done a remarkable job of employing the Journeyman, crafting a very balanced Gameplan that has kept opposing Defenses honest throughout the campaign; on the year, the Vikings have averaged 23.9 Points (1oth Overall) on 367.9 Total Yards (11th Overall), including 245.6 Yards through the air (11th Overall) on 6.8 Net Yards per Attempt (9th Overall), and another 122.3 Yards on the ground (7th Overall) on 3.9 Yards per Carry (23rd Overall), while efficiently converting on 43.5% of their Third Downs (3rd Overall) and scoring a Touchdown on 57.9% of their trips to the Red Zone (9th Overall). Not bad for a unit that after saying goodbye to the Franchise’s All-Time Leading Rusher, lost both Bradford and their promising Rookie Tailback Dalvin Cook (Torn ACL) within the first four weeks of the season, and had to resort to Keenum, who was essentially their Third String Quarterback. This group was bolstered greatly by a vastly-improved Offensive Line, featuring three new starters including Tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, along with Rookie Center Pat Elflein, along with the addition of Tailback LaTavius Murray (216 CAR, 842 YDS, 8 TD). A year ago, the Vikings struggled to get anything going on the ground, ranking dead-last in the NFL in both Rushing Yards (75.3) and Yards per Carry (3.2), while giving up Thirty-Eight Sacks, only to improve upon those figures considerably in 2017, rushing for a staggering Forty-Seven more Yards per Game and permitting Eleven fewer Sacks.
With a solid foundation laid on the ground, Keenum has found it far easier than his predecessor did in pushing the ball downfield, with Receivers such as Adam Theilen (91 REC, 1,276 YDS, 4 TD) and Stefon Diggs (64 REC, 849 YDS, 8 TD) becoming household names, as the undrafted former was selected to his first Pro Bowl, while the latter made arguably the play of the Postseason in last weekend’s thrilling 29-24 comeback victory over the New Orleans Saints. After squandering a 17-0 Halftime Lead, Minnesota trailed 24-23 after the visiting side drilled a 43-Yard Field Goal with a scant Twenty-Five seconds left to play. Beginning from his own 25-Yard Line, Keenum hit Diggs deep down the middle of the field for Nineteen Yards, before calling their final Timeout. Now on their own 39-Yard Line, he unsuccessfully attempted a pair of passes downfield to progress the Drive, hoping to pull the hosts within the range of their Kicker Kai Forbath, who had previously made a 53-Yard Field Goal earlier in the Fourth Quarter. Now with only Ten Seconds remaining, the Signal-Caller heaved the ball down towards the Right Sideline, where Diggs leapt into the air and made the catch, while New Orleans’ Safety Marcus Williams pulled up from his tackle at the last second after arriving too early, afraid to draw a crucial Pass Interference Penalty. However, the young Defender missed Diggs completely, allowing the speedster to regain his footing and race down the Sideline Sixty-One Yards for the Walk-Off Touchdown, as U.S. Bank Stadium erupted in joy. Improbable was the best way to describe the developments, for it all looked to be over for the Vikings, who appeared destined to once again be on the wrong end of a narrow affair in the Playoffs. Instead, Zimmer and his troops stand one game away from enjoying the unique gift of competing for a Super Bowl on their own field, for in just two short weeks, Super Bowl LII will indeed take place in Minneapolis. Of course, they’ll have to leave their comfortable new abode this weekend, traveling to Philadelphia to meet the Eagles. While they obviously play their home games indoors, this team should be fine outdoors in the elements, for their hallmarks, namely defense and running the football, tend to travel quite well. Zimmer and his Staff have put together a tenacious unit that is loaded on all three levels, possessing plenty of size, speed, athleticism, and one helluva meanstreak. On the season, Minnesota ranked tops in the league in both Points Allowed (15.8 P/G) and Total Defense (276.0 Y/G), along with Third Down Percentage (25.2%), including Second Overall against both the Pass (192.4 Y/G) and the Run (83.6 Y/G), all the while relinquishing the fewest Passing Touchdowns in the NFL (13), which is amazing in this pass-happy era of football. In many ways, this group was even more impressive than they were a year ago, when they forced Twenty-Seven Turnovers (scoring Four Touchdowns in the process), and raked in Forty-One Sacks, only to yield fewer yards and points despite significantly fewer of each commodity (19 Turnovers, 37 Sacks). Harrison Smith (78 TKL, 1.5 SK, 5 INT, 12 PD), Anthony Barr (75 TKL, 1.0 SK, 6 PD), Xavier Rhodes (56 TKL, 2 INT, 10 PD), and Everson Griffen (45 TKL, 13.0 SK, 3 FF, 1 PD) were all selected to the Pro Bowl, though in all honesty there could have been many more, with the likes of Erik Kendricks (114 TKL, 1.0 SK, 1 INT, 1 TD, 6 PD) and Danielle Hunter (45 TKL, 7.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 PD) also playing a major role in their success. In last weekend’s Divisional Round triumph, the Vikings did an admirable job of bottling up the Saints’ prolific Offense, permitting 358 Total Yards, including just Eighty of the rushing variety on Twenty-Four Carries, while limiting the dynamic duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to Sixty-Eight Yards on Twenty-One Attempts. Furthermore, they managed them in the Passing Game as well, holding the former to a single Reception for Three Yards, and with the exception of a late 14-Yard Touchdown Catch, contained the latter, who totaled Sixty-Two Yards on Four Receptions. Zimmer’s charges also harassed Drew Brees (25-of-40, 294 YDS, 3 TD, 2 INT) throughout the affair, picking him off twice and sacking him as many times, which helped keep the visiting side at bay through much of the game, relegating them to a dismal 2-of-9 on Third Down (22.2%). When these teams met at Lincoln Financial Field last season, a 21-13 Eagles victory, this unit wrecked havoc on the home side, relinquishing just 239 Total Yards, while forcing Four Turnovers in a contest ripe with them, with a total of eight between the two teams.
Meanwhile, the proverbial Disrespect Card is a powerful tool in the world of sports, and the Eagles (13-3, 1st in NFC East) have just become the latest team to use that weapon to their benefit. Entering last weekend’s meeting with the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs, Philadelphia became the first No. One Seed in Playoff History to be branded as Underdogs after their First Round Bye Week. Of course, the fact that they were competing against the reigning NFC Champions played a role in those matters, but the major reason for their perceived slighting from the masses was almost entirely due to the man who had been taking snaps under Center for the past month: Nick Foles. There is no doubt that many in the City of Brotherly Love would label it as Cruel and Unjust Punishment that after such an impressive campaign which saw their beloved franchise sew up the NFC East before Thanksgiving, that they would have to endure the Playoffs without the presence of Carson Wentz (60.2%, 3,296 YDS, 6.70 NY/A, 33 TD, 7 INT), their beloved Sophomore Quarterback who tore the ACL in his Left Knee midway through an early-December meeting with the Los Angeles Rams. The frontrunner for MVP at that point, Wentz was the proverbial toast of the town in Philadelphia, leading them to a sterling 10-2 record before heading to Injured Reserve, showing major improvement in just his second season in the league. With Wentz at the controls, the Offense was as formidable as any, averaging 31.1 Points on 390.5 Total Yards, only to see those figures drop considerably under the direction of Foles (56.4%, 537 YDS, 4.65 NY/A, 5 TD, 2 INT), averaging a mere 17.7 Points on 258.7 Total Yards over the final three outings of the Regular Season. Simply put, nobody wanted to see the darling of the Chip Kelly Era (which they would prefer to be forgotten in Philly), a guy that they ran out of town back in 2015, try to lead them through a Playoff Run that had been brimming with Super Bowl potential for months. And it’s with that said, that the Eagles entered the Playoffs with very little momentum on this side of the ball, particularly after the final two games of the term, an ugly 19-10 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Christmas Night, followed by a 6-0 loss at home to the Dallas Cowboys in the Finale. The 28-Year Old Journeyman experienced all kinds of problems down the stretch, completing 19-0f-38 Attempts for a miserable 163 Yards, a Touchdown and an Interception in the former, before going 4-of-11 for Thirty-Nine Yards and another Interception in the latter, an affair in which he and many other starters were rested in the Second Half. Needless to say, this unit went from being a juggernaut under Wentz, only to struggle to string together a decent drive under his successor, with perhaps the most damning statistic being their performance on Third Down. On the season, Philadelphia ranked Eighth in the league on Third Down (41.7%), but over the last three games of the season have been dreadful in this regard, converting on only 23.7% of those attempts. And it’s with that said that Doug Pederson and his Coaching Staff had to adjust the Gameplan to their new Quarterback, for even those without proper vision can deduce that this guy is a very different player when compared to his predecessor. While both Signal-Callers are big, tall players, with strong arms, Foles isn’t close to being as mobile as Wentz, who had proven throughout the term to be adept at making plays with his legs, whether shaking off tacklers, and buying time for his targets to get downfield. Foles on the other hand, is much better suited to the Pocket, making the Offense far more conventional; Wentz operated rather successfully out of the Shotgun, which comprised 85.3% of his Snaps, completing 60.1% of his Attempts with Twenty-Nine Touchdowns in comparison to Six Interceptions, while Foles struggled in a similar breakdown, completing 62.8% of his Passes with Four Touchdowns and Two Interceptions.
While that may not seem like a huge disparity at first glance, the devil is always in the details; Out of the Shotgun, Wentz was really pushing the ball downfield, averaging a healthy 7.7 Yards per attempt, but with Foles at the controls, that same Set only netted a meager 6.2 Yards per Attempt, effectively grounding the Eagles’ aerial assault. This was obviously apparent as they were forced to grinding their way through a an ugly 15-10 victory over the Falcons in the Divisional Round last weekend. The fact that that particular performance represented an improvement over the previous three outings should be a referendum on this team’s suddenly tempered expectations; Philadelphia amassed 334 Total Yards, with Foles efficiently completing 23-of-30 Passes for 243 Yards, as Atlanta continuously loaded the box in an effort to force the veteran Journeyman to beat them. With that said, the former and current Eagle did a solid job of distributing the ball to eight different Receivers, while even stretching the field a good degree, averaging a healthy 8.2 Yards per Attempt. Though he did enjoy a good deal of good fortune, with a potentially jarring Second Quarter Interception deflecting off of the knee of an inept Defensive Back, falling into the arms of Alshon Jeffery (57 REC, 789 YDS, 9 TD), who took the football Fifteen Yards, setting up a Sam Elliott 53-Yard Field Goal as the Half expired, cutting the visiting side’s lead to 10-9 at Intermission. That play would loom largely on the Falcons’ desperate, final Drive, in which they were thwarted on four consecutive plays in the Red Zone, forced to go for a Game-Winning Touchdown, rather than settling for a Field Goal from short range. However, this was a game that was clearly won by the Defense, who absolutely had their way with Matt Ryan & Co. throughout the affair, relegating them to a scant 281 Total Yards on Nineteen First Downs, and 5-of-15 on Third and Fourth Down, in a game that was very much effected by wintery conditions. Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz had to have been happy with the job that his charges did against Ryan, for the reigning MVP was kept in check, completing 22-of-36 Attempts for 210 Yards and a Touchdown, while sacking him on three occasions. It was that aforementioned final stand though, that was all anyone could talk about; with 5:57 left to play and starting from their own 24-Yard Line, Atlanta calmly manufactured a marathon-esque, 14-Play, 74-Yard Drive that brought the football inside the Eagles’ 9-Yard Line with 1:19 on the Clock, only for the hosts to thwart a number of attempts to Julio Jones, tackling him Two Yards short of the End Zone on Third Down, before outdueling the All-Pro Receiver on a short jump-ball just beyond the pylon, with the ball falling harmlessly out of bounds. After the game, veteran Defensive End Chris Long (28 TKL, 5.0 SK, 4 FF) was seen making fun of the fact that his team were labeled Underdogs, sporting a cartoonish Dog Mask, that will be reportedly sold in mass at Lincoln Financial Field this Sunday, for once again, this team is being shunned by the Odds-Makers. The Defense, however, has played like prohibitive favorites all year long, with Pro Bowl Defensive Tackle Fletcher Cox (26 TKL, 5.5 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD) and his teammates ranking among the league’s best in a number of categories; on the season, the Eagles have allowed 18.4 Points (4th Overall) on 306.5 Total Yards (4th Overall), including 227.3 Yards versus the Pass (17th Overall) on 5.7 Net Yards per Attempt (7th Overall), and another 79.2 Yards against the Run (1st Overall) on 3.8 Yards per Carry (6th Overall), all the while permitting opponents to convert on just 32.2% of Third Downs (3rd Overall). That last figure should make for a fascinating “Game within the Game”, given Minnesota’s persistent success on Third Down, and overall balance. If Schwartz’s charges can negate the visiting side’s Running Game, then they will in all likelihood be able to finally force the aforementioned Keenum into situations in which the Journeyman must win the game, which up until last Sunday is something he hadn’t had to do since ascending to the starting role. This unit has also been a proverbial Big-Play Machine this season, accumulating Thirty-Eight Sacks (16th Overall) and Thirty-One Takeaways (4th Overall), which they’ve managed to turn into Six Defensive Touchdowns, the second-most in the NFL.