When you think about the Vikings the first thing you think about is Adrian Peterson. He makes the offense go, obviously on the ground, but also through the air because the below-average Minnesota passing attack needs the future Hall of Fame running back to keep pass defenses honest. Peterson (1,221 yards, 10 touchdowns), though, is questionable for Sunday’s game. He didn’t practice on Thursday with a sprained foot, but it would be unwise to assume that he won’t heal in time. Peterson did return from an ACL injury last season in record time.
If Peterson is out, Toby Gerhart is next up. He didn’t practice on Thursday either because of a hamstring injury, but reports out of Minneapolis indicate he has a better shot at playing. Chip Kelly knows Gerhart well. The Stanford product, who is averaging 7.9 yards on 36 carries, had some big games against Oregon when Kelly was there. If both Peterson and Gerhart are out, the Eagles could be playing with a running clock by the third quarter. Matt Asiata is the third string tailback and he’s yet to take a carry this season.
The Vikings like to mix up their run packages. They can run out of multiple formations, some with only a single back, others with a full house in the backfield. The Eagles run defense has been very good for most of the season. Peterson is a different challenge than most of the running backs they have faced. But if he can’t go the Vikings aren’t as dangerous with the play action and will need quarterback Matt Cassel to make strong throws.
Of the three quarterbacks the Vikings have used this season – Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman are the others – Cassel has been the most consistent. He nearly guided the Vikings past the Ravens in the snow on Sunday. Greg Jennings (48 catches for 570 yards and three TDs) is the team’s leading receiver and Jerome Simpson has the most yards (670), but rookie Cordarrelle Patterson has been coming on strong of late. He caught five passes for 141 yards and a score in Baltimore. He has done his most damage this season as a kick returner, taking two kicks back for touchdowns. The Eagles have allowed two returns for touchdowns this season, allowing one last week to the Lions (they also surrender a punt return touchdown).
The Vikings like to mix up their coverages. They’ll play man-to-man, but also like to employ a number of zones, including Cover 2 if they’re having success forcing offenses into second- and third-and-long. Their defensive front isn’t what it once was. Defensive end Jared Allen can still get to the quarterback (seven sacks) but his days of dominance are waning. Kevin Williams is still a running-back eating defensive tackle. He’ll play some three-technique, some nose on passing downs. Eagles inside linemen Evan Mathis, Todd Herremans and Jason Kelce will take turns on the 6-foot-5, 311-pound 11-year veteran. Letroy Guion plays nose tackle on base downs.
If Allen and fellow defensive end Brian Robison (seven sacks) can pressure Nick Foles from the edges, the Vikings probably won’t have to commit a safety to help stop LeSean McCoy as much. The Eagles running back set career and franchise marks with 217 yards rushing against the Lions. He loves running indoors and on turf. He could be explosive Sunday (isn’t he always?). Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway plays on all downs and is the team’s leading tackler. He has nine missed tackles in the run game, per Pro Football Focus. He plays strong side and runs fairly well at 6-2, 242 pounds, but the Eagles could exploit him in the pass game against the 6-5, 250-pound Zach Ertz.
The Vikings secondary had been beset by injury. Rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes is expected to miss Sunday, which means Chris Cook will start opposite Josh Robinson. The Vikings could be getting safety Harrison Smith back. The pass defense is ranked 30th in the NFL in yards allowed (282.5). Numbers can be deceiving, but the Vikings have struggled to keep receivers out of the end zone. They’ve already allowed 29 passing touchdowns this season. DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper should have opportunities to find space.
The Vikings may be 3-9-1, but several of their losses have been of the gut-punch variety. It would be easy for the Eagles to overlook this bunch, especially coming off an emotional victory in the snow. But Kelly has his troops looking straight ahead and not to Dallas, where the Cowboys host the Packers, or down the line at a potential for-all-the-NFC-East-marbles finale in Texas.
I think the Eagles win, and they win comfortably.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Vikings 17.
What goes right: McCoy tops the century mark on the ground again.
What goes wrong: Patrick Chung is at his Chungiest.
The Eagles have embraced Chip Kelly’s “one-week season” mantra, but it’s reasonable for this team to start thinking playoffs. What’s happening in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday afternoon is very much relevant to the Eagles, and it’s entirely possible the Eagles could go into Week 16 with a chance to clinch.
That doesn’t mean they can look over the Vikings, and I don’t expect that they will.
It’s not in this team’s makeup, and it’s also not a game that presents foreboding matchups. More than any game in recent weeks, the Eagles seem to match up favorably with Minnesota. Of course, the health of Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart are variables that are difficult to account for at this point. Peterson is good enough to change the complexion of a game, although one should wonder how effective he would be with an injured foot if he does play.
The Vikings might miss key players besides Peterson, too. Tight end John Carlson has not yet been cleared to return from his concussion, and he’s been productive in recent weeks. The status of guard Brandon Fusco is also uncertain. The Eagles defense has been sharp for two months, and I think this is the 10th consecutive game in which the opponent is held to 21 points or fewer.
Quarterback Matt Cassel is able to put up yards. The Eagles must account for rookie wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who had 141 receiving yards and has emerged as a dangerous threat late in the season. Patterson is also a concern in the return game, and the Eagles allowed two special teams scores last week.
The Eagles can have a big week on offense. Minnesota allows 30.4 points per game, and their secondary has been ravaged by injuries. They allow 282.5 passing yards game. Chicago receiver Alshon Jeffrey totaled 249 yards on them. If you play fantasy football, start Riley Cooper – he could be bound for a strong performance against a defense that must pay attention to DeSean Jackson.
The Vikings have allowed a 100-yard rusher in three of the past five weeks. The two rushers they stopped were Marshawn Lynch and Ray Rice. So the Vikings are capable, albeit inconsistent. LeSean McCoy won’t near last week’s career best, but he should have another strong day and continue building a lead on Peterson.
An Eagles win continues to put them in favorable position, and it makes sense to scoreboard watch in the afternoon. If the Eagles win and the Cowboys lose, the Eagles would enter Week 16 able to clinch the NFC East.
Not bad for a team that was 3-5 at the halfway point of the season.
Prediction: Eagles 35, Vikings 19.
What goes right: Nick Foles throws three touchdowns, the defense keeps the opponent to 21 points or fewer for 10th consecutive week.
What goes wrong: Patterson tops 100 receiving yards. If Peterson plays, he’ll be productive.