One team feels like the football gods are on their side. The other team feels like everyone, including those self-same gods, are against them. When the Eagles welcome Minnesota to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship Game, there will be a lot of long-suffering fans on both sides hoping that fate works for them.
According to Pro Football Reference, the Vikings and Eagles are the franchises with the most playoff wins without ever having won a Super Bowl. That’s the kind of history that makes sales of Kaopectate spike the weekend of a big game.
At the very least, we know who the game’s halftime performers, The Roots are rooting for.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) January 19, 2018
The two teams are almost a mirror image of each other, to the point that the media covering each team have found it difficult to figure out who has the advantage. The answers to these five burning questions should determine which team will represent the NFC in Super Bowl LII.
Can Vikings Avoid A “Minnesota Miracle” Hangover?
By this point, even people who have never seen a football game have seen the play. With 10 seconds left and the Vikings about to lose to the New Orleans, Case Keenum makes a sideline throw that Saints’ rookie corner Marcus Williams badly misplays allowing Stefon Diggs to sprint untouched into the end zone. Within minutes, the play already had a name, “The Minnesota Miracle.”
Pandemonium ensued at U.S. Bank Stadium. Vikings’ Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen wandered around the field, mouth agape, trying to process what just happened. Minneapolis partied like… well, like Prince was still around.
Now, the Vikings have to get themselves up again in Philadelphia. Did Minnesota expend too much energy just getting to the Championship game? Or, did they just become a “Team of Destiny”?
History’s answer on this one is muddled. The Tennessee Titans parlayed the “Music City Miracle” into a Super Bowl trip. Conversely, the “Immaculate Reception” might have signaled the start of the Steelers coming dynasty, but Pittsburgh actually lost the following week in the AFC Championship against the Miami Dolphins.
The Vikings need to stay in the moment if they want to be the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium.
Will Anyone Be Able To Run?
The Eagles finished first in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing just 79.2 yards per game. The Vikings finished 2nd at 83.6. They’re both stingy is what we’re saying.
Even though neither team had a runner who gained even 900 yards, they both like to establish the run. Minnesota ran 47.5-percent of the time during the regular season, while Philly ran on 44.1-percent of their plays.
Last week, neither team was great on the ground. Ajayi led Philadelphia with 54 yards and disappeared without explanation for a long stretch of the game. Murray led the Vikings with just 50 yards, but both he and McKinnon found the end zone. Both teams averaged less 3.5 yards a carry in their playoff opener.
Whichever team can manage to do anything on the ground against the other’s imposing defense will get a nice leg up.
Can Nick Foles Really Win Another Playoff Game?
Um, maybe? By now, even non-Philly fans know that Nick Foles had one magical season in 2013 playing for Chip Kelly, throwing for 27 touchdowns against 2 interceptions. Of course, two seasons later, he was also replaced by his counterpart in the NFC Championship game, when he played so badly for the Rams that they had to turn to Keenum back in 2015.
The former 3rd round draft pick has alternated between adequate and awful since he took the reins after Carson Wentz‘s injury. Last week, though, Doug Pederson seemed to find a strategy that Foles was comfortable with.
In the second half against Atlanta, the Eagles called a steady diet of run-pass options. Having the out of handing the ball off seemingly calmed Foles down and allowed him to get into a rhythm of throwing short passes.
Unfortunately for both Foles and Pederson, Minnesota has spent all week watching that game film. The Eagles coach has proven adept at calling plays that put his offensive players in good positions. Against a defense as dominant as the Vikings, the quarterback better hope that his coach knows how to channel Bill Walsh on Sunday.
Can The Vikings Offensive Line Handle Fletcher Cox & Co.?
When the Eagles are on offense, there will be a strength-on-strength battle going on. The Vikings defense is outstanding at every level, including the defensive line, led by Griffen’s 13 sacks. On the other side, when the All-Pro team was announced, both Eagles’ right tackle Lane Johnson and center Jason Kelce were named first team.
For their part, Philadelphia’s defensive line compares favorably with their Minnesota counterparts. The Vikings offensive line is a different story.
Considering that last season, the team’s O-line might have been the worst in the league, the Vikings have come a long way. Even so, the position group is clearly the team’s weak(est) spot.
That puts a lineman still adjusting to a new position directly across from Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Even though right tackle Rashod Hill has started six games, he’s now matched up against Brandon Graham and Chris Long, who have combined for 14 sacks this season.
Whether or not the Vikings can keep the Eagles defensive front from hitting Keenum repeatedly has a good chance of deciding which team moves on to Super Bowl LII.
Will The Dog (Masks) Be Let Out?
Overshadowed by “The Minnesota Miracle” was what the Eagles did after their game last Saturday. Injured tackle, and future Hall of Famer, Jason Peters spent the entire game against Atlanta carrying a pair of dog masks in his jacket. As soon as the game was over, Johnson and Long suddenly were walking around with German Shepherd heads, to honor Philadelphia’s status as a home underdog, despite being the Number 1 seed.
Well, Philadelphia is once again an underdog against Minnesota. Those masks sold out on Amazon quicker than you can chant E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles! By the time that the game begins early Sunday evening, Lincoln Financial Field will look like Cleveland’s Dawg Pound (and smell like a brewery).
Playing the Us-Against-Them card can help a team focus on the game, but in the end, they have to actually outplay the team on the other side of the field. The Eagles and the Vikings are about as evenly matched as two teams can be.
Keenum should be able to move the ball against the Philadelphia secondary, especially if Adam Thielen‘s back is fine, but scoring against the Eagles defense isn’t easy. It’s hard to imagine Foles doing much against the Vikings defense, but Pederson will put him in position to make completions. It will be up to Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, and Nelson Agholor to help their quarterback out by catching anything in their vicinity. The Eagles offense needs to put at least one touchdown on the board.
Bonus Question: Who Wins?
It’s hard to imagine that this game won’t come down to the fourth quarter, with both teams trying to put some points — any points — on the board.
Minnesota escaped last week on a truly miraculous play. Playing outside, with a raucous, hostile crowd, and facing Jim Schwartz’s attacking defense makes miracles a little harder to come by this time around.
Philadelphia would like nothing better than to let things come down to a long Jake Elliott field goal. The odds are looking good that Eagles fans will have the opportunity to live or die on the leg of their rookie kicker.
It says here that everyone’s going to have to wait a little longer to see a team play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.