What to watch in the Eagles-Vikings NFC championship game | Early Birds

Good morning, Eagles fans. On Sunday, the Eagles will play their final home game of the season with the chance to make the Super Bowl. Who saw this coming 19 weeks ago when Early Birds debuted?  The beat writers are split on their predictions; what do you think will happen?

This is a Friday edition of the Early Birds newsletter. It’s free for anyone to sign up here to receive in your inbox every weekday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

What to watch in the Eagles-Vikings playoff game

Camera icon YONG KIM
The Eagles defense huddle against the Atlanta Falcons in a NFC Divisional Playoff game on Saturday, January 13, 2018 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Here’s what I’ll be watching once the ball is kicked on Sunday afternoon:

All on the (defensive) line

Much has been written this week about the two defenses, and it’s likely that the better defense on Sunday wins the game. Fletcher Cox was even more specific: “It will come down to is our D-line better than theirs?” The Eagles won last week’s game in the trenches, and they’ll need to do the same against the Vikings. Both defensive lines are outstanding, but the Eagles’ offensive line is better than the Vikings’ offensive line. That could give the Eagles the advantage, although the rest of the Vikings’ top-ranked defense could also make it a long evening for the Eagles. There are two particular matchups you need to watch on both sides. When the Eagles have the ball, left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai has his toughest assignment of the season against Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen. Doug Pederson called Griffen a “game-wrecker.” When the Eagles are on defense, defensive end Brandon Graham has a mismatch against Vikings right tackle Rashod Hill, who has started only eight games in his career. If the Vikings give Hill help, then Cox could see more one-on-ones. The quarterbacks and skill-position players often get the most attention, but when you watch the line play on Sunday, you’ll see the difference in the game.

Whoa Nellie!

If you’re looking for a potential X-factor on Sunday, it’s wide receiver Nelson Agholor. The Vikings have one of the best secondaries in the league, and Alshon Jeffery will have a tough matchup against Xavier Rhodes on the outside. Watch out for Agholor in the slot against either Terance Newman or Mackensie Alexander — that’s where Nick Foles can find an advantage. Agholor has been a key weapon for the Eagles all season, and his role continues to evolve. He’s been their most productive third-down receiver and big-play option. Pederson is finding creative ways to use him like when you saw Agholor take a jet sweep for a big gain last week. He’s given the Eagles a versatile dimension that they lost when Darren Sproles was injured. The Eagles relied on three drives of more than 10 plays to score last week, and Frank Reich spoke about the need for “chunk” plays. No one can offer that better than Agholor — especially when you look at the matchups.

Seven instead of three

One area for improvement I’ve heard discussed from players this week is the red zone. The Eagles went 1 of 3 in the red zone last week, settling for two field goals and needing a fourth-down conversion to score a touchdown. They must be more efficient on their red-zone trips on Sunday. It’s easier said than done, but when they have a chance to score, they can’t miss that opportunity. That was a key for them throughout the season — they ranked first in the NFL with touchdowns on 65.5 percent of their red-zone trips, which was their best percentage since at least 1995. The Vikings had the second-best red zone defense in the NFL this season, limiting opponents to 43.2 percent. However, the New Orleans Saints were 3 for 4 in the red zone last week, which was why the Vikings played a game in the 20s instead of the teens. The Eagles might not be able to get four red-zone trips on Sunday, but when they’re down there, it’ll be bad if they must settle for a field goal. It’s been an emphasis all week, and the Eagles will focus Friday’s practice session on red-zone plays.

Plus-or-minus

I wasn’t surprised the Eagles won last week, but I was surprised they won with a minus-2 turnover differential. That’s hard to do in close games. I’d be shocked if they can do the same on Sunday against the Vikings. Foles and Case Keenum have both been drilled to take care of the ball, but considering the quality of both defenses, that will be difficult to do. The Eagles were much better this season at forcing turnovers than Minnesota (31 takeaways compared to 19), but they also turned the ball over more often (20 turnovers compared to 14). The Eagles fumbled four times last week and gave it away twice, so Foles’ passes weren’t the problem. Keenum had one interception last week and the Vikings defense had two interceptions, allowing the Vikings to win the turnover differential and the game. I’m curious to see what the respective strategies will be on Sunday — will both offenses be aggressive, or will they wait to capitalize on a mistake? The turnover differential will be important to watch.

Home sweet home

The significance of home-field advantage cannot be overstated. The Eagles defense is much better at home (they’re allowing only 13 points per game, more than 10 points fewer than on the road), and the Vikings allow nearly six more points on the road than at home. The Vikings are a dome team that can feed off their home environment. It’s supposed to be unseasonably warm in Philadelphia on Sunday, so the conditions do not pose a big challenge to them. But the home crowd will be raucous on Sunday, with dog masks around the stadium and fans trying to will the Eagles to the Super Bowl. The only game the Eagles have lost at home this season came when they sat their starters for much of Week 17. They’ve outscored opponents by 127 pounds at Lincoln Financial Field and have the best home record in the NFL during the past two seasons. If this game was in Minnesota, my prediction would be different. Eagles fans should be thankful that the win over Carolina in October gave them the tie-breaker.


What you need to know about the Eagles


3 Questions With | Defensive end Vinny Curry

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY
Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry celebrates his stop for a loss of San Francisco running back Carlos Hyde during the 1st quarter of the game at Lincoln Financial Field October 29, 2017. Eagles won 33-10. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Zach Berman: The expression, “We all we got, we all we need!” when you hear that, what’s the significance of that for you?

Vinny Curry: It’s on us. We’ve been saying that for awhile. We used to do, “1-2-3, ‘We all we got!'” That’s something I brought to the squad. So it’s all on us. They can hype the game up all they want, but at the end of the day, it’s between all the guys on the field at the time, and the fans. Especially with it being a home game, especially with us being underdogs, we don’t need anybody to say so or no pats on the back. As long as we have some fans, our staff, and our team, we’re good.

Zach Berman: It’s morphed into some bigger. The team’s hype video is based around that expression. Does it explain the team?

Vinny Curry: Yeah, I saw an interview with [Fletcher Cox], Fletch says, “Nobody gave us a chance anyways, since the beginning of the season.” Think about it, when we were in training camp, did you think think we’d be sitting here 13-3? …We’re getting ready to play for an NFC Championship. That goes back to the saying, “We all we got, we all we need.” That’s just how it goes. Guys come out here and bust their ass every day. That goes to Coach [Doug] Pederson, because he busts his ass as well. He coaches everybody.

Zach Berman: It’s been six years for you. Can you put into perspective what it means to play in the NFC championship?

Vinny Curry: Sunday, bro! Sunday! You said it, say it with me, “NFC championship!” Enough said! I might have been in the 10th grade watching the Eagles in the NFC championship. …We’re going to empty the tank. Leave it all out there. It’s going to be fun.”


Elsewhere in the NFL


From the mailbag

I’d be surprised if this game was played in the 20s, Scott. But if a team reaches 20 points, my guess is they’re heading to the Super Bowl. These are two of the best defenses in the NFL. I wrote above about the Eagles’ defensive credentials at home. You saw the Falcons last week — they couldn’t get past 10 points, and that offense was more dangerous than Minnesota’s. The over-under was set at 38 points, so Las Vegas isn’t expecting a shootout. Maybe a non-offensive touchdown will inflate the score. I just don’t think either offense puts up 20 points.

By the way, you and I picked the same exact score. And none of our beat writers had either team in the 20s.

You’re correct that Alshon Jeffery has had big games against Minnesota. He has more catches (45), yards (685), and touchdowns (seven) against the Vikings than any other team.  He’s played 10 games against them. The caveat there is all that production hasn’t come against Xavier Rhodes, the All-Pro cornerback who will be covering him on Sunday. So the matchup is different against Rhodes, but there’s no doubt Jeffery is a talented player who must be a key part of the offense. Rhodes has also improved since earlier in his career, which Pederson acknowledged when he watched their matchups this week.

“I’ve gone back and looked at that matchup in particular just to see the battle that went on and the types of things that Alshon did against him, and the coverage technique that he used,” Pederson said. “Does it apply to this game? Maybe a little bit. I think Alshon’s a better player. I think [Rhodes is] a much better player, obviously, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence. It’s going to be another great matchup again Sunday evening.”

You saw in the second half last week what a productive Jeffery can do for the passing game. It opens everything else up, and he can make tough catches while covered. Nick Foles must look his way, even if Rhodes has tight coverage. I’m curious to see if Rhodes follows Jeffery around the field. The Eagles can also move Jeffery into the slot to try to free him up at times.

Another interesting twist to the Jeffery-Vikings matchup — the Vikings pursued Jeffery in free agency. They reportedly offered him a long-term deal. Jeffery chose to sign with the Eagles.

Good question, Danny. I’ve wondered the same this week. In last season’s Eagles-Vikings game, the Eagles blitzed them more than normal. Of course, Sam Bradford was the quarterback that day and the Vikings’ offensive line was more depleted than they are this season. But it clearly worked — Bradford was sacked six times and hit 13 times. Case Keenum is more agile and better at moving in the pocket than Bradford, so that might not be the strategy the Eagles use. But I think the Eagles can blitz in the right spots and try to force Keenum to beat them under pressure.

“We’re a little bit surgical on our blitzes,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “We don’t blitz a lot, but when they do, they are pretty effective.”

The flip side of this argument is that the Eagles’ defensive line has the advantage over the Vikings’ offensive line. If the Eagles can win their one-on-one matchups with a four-man rush — and I think they can — then they can drop seven in coverage.

To give you a succinct answer, I think it depends on the types of third downs the Eagles force. If they can get the Vikings in third-and-long situations, they can send an extra rusher to force a quicker throw. If not, they might not be able to lose a player in coverage.