The biggest mismatch to emerge Sunday night in the NFC championship game is one that ought to give Eagles fans hope for Super Bowl LII and the matchup with the five-time champion New England Patriots.
It wasn’t quarterbacking, though that was a contender, Nick Foles unleashing a performance Case Keenum certainly couldn’t come close to touching.
But a big reason for the QB disparity was right there in front of Foles – the Eagles’ offensive line, which dominated the Minnesota Vikings’ vaunted front seven. And most observers would rate Minnesota’s pass rush and run defense well ahead of the Patriots’.
Eagles blockers took one penalty all evening, an iffy holding call on Brent Celek, after the Birds had built a 38-7 lead. The Eagles ran effectively early – 20 yards total on the first two runs, 11 yards up the gut for a touchdown on their sixth run of the game – and got the Vikings so consumed with stopping that, Foles was able to lob passes over the heads of aggressive safeties with seeming ease.
On the touchdown run by LeGarrette Blount, the blocking was so strong, Blount was 8 yards past the line of scrimmage before a Viking crossed his path. That was safety Andrew Sendejo, whose standstill attempt to halt Blount’s momentum ended about like you’d think it would, given the 40-pound weight disparity. Right guard Brandon Brooks, tight end Trey Burton, right tackle Lane Johnson and center Jason Kelce basically sealed off the Minnesota defense.
On the 53-yard Foles touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery, analyst Troy Aikman marveled over how Foles wasn’t sacked by Everson Griffen. Replays showed Foles wasn’t sacked because though Griffen got a hand on Foles, Eagles left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai reestablished his leverage and pushed Griffen far away, giving Foles time to throw.
“I thought ‘Big V’ played, gosh, extremely well, extremely well,” Doug Pederson said Monday. “We did help him from time to time, but there were also times he had to be on an island and block a tremendous defensive end [Griffen] who has had a heck of a year.”
Foles was sacked once, early in the second quarter. He took a hard hit to the ribs on an Anthony Barr blitz –nonetheless completing the pass to Jeffery for a first down – but otherwise had a pretty clean pocket.
When former Eagles coach Andy Reid talked about the matchup and about Foles in an interview last week, he said, “You’ve gotta take care of the protection,” for Foles to be effective, and the o-line definitely did that Sunday. You don’t call or throw a flea-flicker if you’re getting pressured. You don’t complete 53-, 42-, 41- and 36-yard passes if there are rushers in your lap.
“I think this is the best they’ve played as a unit,” Pederson said of his o-line. “All the way across the board, from Lane to Big V, I mean, these guys, we haven’t talked a whole lot about them this year, but this is a group that [offensive line coach] Jeff Stoutland does a tremendous job preparing these guys each week.”
“That’s a really good defensive front, and they give you a lot of different looks, so there were different blitzes that we had to pick up,” Foles said. “There’s a little bit more movement in the pocket just because of the different blitz angles. I just felt comfortable because I trusted the guys up front. … The key to an offense is the offensive line. We have the most athletic and best offensive line in the league. Those guys are unbelievable. Each one of them can probably beat me in a race — that’s how athletic they are.
“They did a great job all night. I just had to move around in the pocket a little bit. They picked it all up.”
*Have I mentioned yet this week how much I like the way Corey Clement plays? That spin-and-stiff-arm away from Anthony Barr for a first down on third-and-6 Sunday, after catching a swing pass. Dang.
*The thing about Jim Schwartz and blitzing is, he doesn’t do it much, but right now when he does it, it works. Malcolm Jenkins off the edge forced a third-and-2 throwaway on the Vikings’ first possession after the Eagles took the lead early in the second quarter.
*The Vikings’ charter flight home was delayed because three hours after the game, tight end David Morgan was still trying to get over to block Derek Barnett on that play that resulted in a strip-sack, with Chris Long recovering.
*After the Eagles’ final touchdown, Alshon Jeffery’s second of the game, Jeffery tried a “Linc Leap” into the seats but had to settle for slapping hands with fans, seated a few feet above his head. But left guard Stefen Wisniewski actually made it onto the ledge.
“I shouldn’t tell you this, but I found a bench [at the bottom of the wall] to get a boost off of,” Wisniewski explained. “I didn’t jump straight up that high. It’s my first time ever going in the crowd. It’s really fun. I might have to do it again in the future; it was a good time. Especially in the NFC championship, when you’re winning by 30 points.”
So here, in case an apocalyptic event wipes out all video archives worldwide someday, is what happened on that amazing 50-yard Patrick Robinson interception return for the touchdown in the first quarter that changed everything Sunday evening, the one Nick Foles said “pumped up the whole city of Philadelphia – I think everyone down Broad Street heard that.”
Chris Long’s arm interrupted Case Keenum’s throwing motion, and Keenum underthrew a pass. Robinson caught the ball along the Eagles’ sideline, at midfield, and started forward. It seemed he would try to hug the sideline, with Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod and Nigel Bradham in front of him, but that route quickly jammed up as intended receiver Adam Thielen and fellow wideout Michael Floyd engaged the blockers, with Keenum angling in behind them.
Robinson started to cut to the middle. There was no one pursuing him from behind, and once he got a clear view of the field in front of him, he kept cutting, all the way across the field. Vikings tackle Riley Reiff, like a tow truck trying to keep pace with a Ferrari, went from being in front of Robinson to disappearing in his rear-view mirror very quickly.
As Troy Aikman noted on the broadcast, corner Ronald Darby came flying up out of the secondary once he realized Robinson was running to his side of the field. Darby got blasted by Jerick McKinnon, but he caused enough of a diversion that Robinson slipped past the Vikings’ speedy running back and to the right end-zone pylon, which he reached just ahead of lunging Minnesota center Pat Elflein.
According to Pro Football Reference, Robinson’s pick-six was the longest in a conference championship game since Rodney Harrison’s 87-yarder for the Patriots in January 2005.
Robinson ended up in the tunnel behind the north end zone, with Bradham, McLeod, Corey Graham and Jalen Mills, who eventually allowed him to emerge and don an oxygen mask on the Eagles’ bench.
That four years ago, when I thought Nick Foles might be the kind of quarterback who could lead the Eagles into the Super Bowl, THAT I WOULD EVENTUALLY BE PROVED RIGHT?
The Eagles went 9-1 at home this season (9-0 with their starters, in games that mattered), outscoring opponents 282-124. That is just about as good as it gets.
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks was the center of a moving cloud of photographers and well-wishers, as Kendricks held aloft the George Halas Trophy given to the NFC champion, in the end zone near the tunnel to the Eagles’ locker room Sunday night.
“That was an unreal feeling,” Kendricks said. “Honestly, I was just trying to get to the locker room and Mr. Lurie was like, ‘Mychal! Here! Show the crowd the trophy!’ I was like, ‘OK. Cool.’ … It felt really good to hold it … Blood, sweat and tears went into that, straight up.”
Less good was the postgame meeting between Mychal and his brother, Vikings standout linebacker Eric Kendricks, who acknowledged afterward that in the moment, he was not happy to see his older sibling move on.
“Right now I’m mad, yeah I’m not happy for him,” Eric Kendricks said. “It’s crazy that we’re in this position, all of the things that we’ve been through, yeah, that’s cool. But I’m not happy for him. You know, I wanted to win that game. They beat us fair and square and we’ll see, but for right now, I’m not happy.”
Mychal said he understood.
“It was bittersweet, man. My heart goes out to him,” he said. “I know he’s hurting right now. … I’ve been there. I guess he’ll be there in Minnesota waiting for me” when the Eagles arrive next week for Super Bowl LII.