Eagles-Vikings: What we learned from the NFC championship game triumph | Jeff McLane

The Eagles are going to the Super Bowl. It’s a little surreal writing those words considering all they had to overcome, but it’s as true as steel. The Eagles punched their ticket with an overwhelming 38-7 whipping of the Vikings in Sunday’s NFC championship game at Lincoln Financial Field. For the penultimate time this season, here is what we learned:

1. The Eagles are one win from finally winning that elusive Super Bowl title. Asked for his thoughts on the flight home from Los Angeles after an NFC-clinching win that was marred by Carson Wentz’s knee injury, owner Jeffrey Lurie acknowledged the daunting task his team faced. “Who knew it would come to this?” Lurie asked rhetorically. Well, no one, but the Eagles brain trust had prepared for the possibility. “We made such a concerted effort to make sure we could get Nick [Foles] back on the team. … We prioritized more money for the second quarterback position than most any other team in football,” Lurie said. “We even were willing to eat a lot of the contract we had so we could go out and get Nick.”

It was a bold move dumping Chase Daniel even though the Eagles would end up taking on $4.1 million in dead money from his original three-year, $21 million contract. But they saw an opportunity to bring Foles back even if it cost them $11 million over two years. The Eagles had devoted more to the backup quarterback position than any other team, but Howie Roseman had been keeping notes during his years under Andy Reid and Joe Banner. Every team understands that quarterback is a premium position. It isn’t rocket science. But the Eagles have long been willing to expend more than most teams in acquiring and stockpiling quarterbacks. The previous leadership didn’t bring home a title, but with Wentz, and Foles seemingly peaking as the Eagles head into the Super Bowl, the team has given itself its greatest odds.

There will be plenty of time to break down their chances against the Patriots. And maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, but could you imagine what Roseman could get in return for Foles this offseason if he was to pull off the seemingly unthinkable? Of course, he could also end up having a roster with two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in a year’s time.

2. Doug Pederson was the real Coach of the Year. If given the vote, I would have selected Pederson NFL coach of the year. The award, for some reason, is based solely on the regular season. Sean McVay did a wonderful job turning the Rams around in one year, and I had him as my runner-up, but didn’t the Eagles win in Los Angeles without Wentz for the final quarter? Didn’t Pederson win twice without his starting quarterback to secure the No. 1 seed? Didn’t he guide the Eagles over one obstacle after the other? Hasn’t he game-planned and called plays as well as any other offensive coordinator this season? The McVay selection looks kind of lame now, right?

Pederson saved his best thus far for Sunday. The Vikings have a legitimately great defense. Maybe they weren’t as good as their No. 1 regular-season ranking. But scoring more than 30 points on Mike Zimmer’s group seemed inconceivable last week. Pederson’s offense, however, posted 31 points and 456 yards on Minnesota. The Eagles coach had receivers running free downfield all game. Pederson knew that he would have chances deep against Zimmer’s scheme, and he didn’t hold back. A flea-flicker? Sure, why not? And to me, the sequence that summed up Pederson the best was his aggressiveness before halftime. While the Jaguars’ Doug Marrone had turtled up in the earlier AFC championship game and knelt on the ball with 55 seconds and two timeouts left before the break, Pederson had Foles drive the Eagles into field-goal range in just 29 seconds.

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There’s more to Pederson than just his play calling, however. Lurie on Pederson’s secret: “Doug Pederson is just himself. And at times, that’s very humble, and at times, it’s just very real. At times, that’s very bright. At times, it’s tough. But he does it in a true, genuine way and I think players really respond to that in today’s world.”

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson gets the Gatorade bath late in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl berth-clinching NFC championship game win over the Minnesota Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field.
Camera icon Yong Kim/Staff Photographer
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson gets the Gatorade bath late in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl berth-clinching NFC championship game win over the Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field.

3. Nick Foles can win a Super Bowl. Two years ago, he contemplated retirement. Jeff Fisher will do that to the steeliest of minds. But Foles, just released by the Rams, reconsidered his options and accepted the Chiefs’ offer to be a backup. A year later, he was back in Philadelphia. And now he’s one victory from being a Super Bowl champion. He was spectacular against the Vikings, dropping dimes all over the field. Foles completed 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns. He didn’t have a turnover. He was sacked only once. He completed 79 percent of his throws and would have been even more accurate had it not been for a few receiver miscues. If he repeats his performance, the Eagles will likely topple the Patriots. Heck, they could probably beat the 1985 Bears.

While it isn’t entirely fair to compare Foles to Wentz, it’s hard not to considering the dynamic. But there were many similarities. Foles completed passes to seven receivers without one topping 100 yards. He threw into tight windows. He extended plays when necessary. He’ll never be mistaken for Wentz in terms of athleticism, but Foles has more than enough to move comfortably in the pocket. The key to his success is often his protection. If Foles has time to throw, he is as accurate as any other thrower.

4. The Eagles defense outclassed the Vikings’ top-rated unit. The Eagles won the toss and deferred, per usual. Pederson trusts his defense to get an early stop. But that wasn’t the case Sunday. The Vikings drove down the field in nine plays and scored seven points when Kyle Rudolph caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Case Keenum. There was some shoddy tackling and miscommunication before the Rudolph score. Linebacker Najee Goode, who had been filling in for injured Dannell Ellerbe, was late to react, and the tight end ran a route right by him. I believe Goode played only one more snap the entire game – in the Eagles’ four-linebacker package on the Vikings’ next drive.

I’m not sure if Jim Schwartz was simply matching personnel from there on out, but it appeared as if he decided to ride just his nickel and dime packages even if Minnesota went heavy. The Vikings were shut out the rest of the way. The coaches’ film has yet to be released, so I have yet to take an all-views look at how Schwartz confounded Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. He appeared to blitz more than normal. That made sense against a suspect offensive line. He rotated his line more than he had last week. He took away the deep ball. Keenum completed just one pass of more than 25 yards.

And don’t tell me Schwartz wasn’t motivated by Shurmur’s getting the New York Giants coaching job ahead of him. Schwartz never ended up interviewing for the job, but he was a candidate. “It’s a great group,” Pederson said of his defense. “Probably not getting enough credit.”

5. Chris Long and Patrick Robinson were just two of many examples of why Howie Roseman had a Super 2017 offseason. I wrote extensively about the credit Roseman deserved for the Eagles’ success in my column. His fingerprints were all over Sunday’s victory. Nearly every offseason acquisition – and one in-season – played a significant role in the win. Foles, of course, was brilliant. Alshon Jeffery caught two touchdown passes. Torrey Smith added another. LeGarrette Blount ran for one. Jay Ajayi – added just before the trade deadline in October – had 99 all-purpose yards. Ronald Darby had three pass breakups. Corey Graham had an interception. Jake Elliott’s kicks were perfect. And Long and Robinson teamed up for a play that will long be a part of Eagles lore. They were signed to one-year contracts on the same day in March while the Eagles were at the NFL owners meetings in Arizona.

They were moves that drifted under the radar at the time, but they have proven to be prescient nine months later. And Roseman, Joe Douglas and their staffs deserve every accolade for building a championship-caliber roster that is built for longevity. It’s too early to give final grades on their first draft together, but they have apparently gotten at least the first pick correct. Derek Barnett was also a standout performer, recording a pivotal strip sack in the second quarter.

Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills, left, and Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson, right, celebrate a first quarter touchdown, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Philadelphia. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Camera icon Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer
Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills, left, and Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson celebrate after Robinson’s big interception return for a touchdown.

6. Zach Ertz is a third-down converting machine. The tight end said last week that he wanted to be Foles’ go-to guy on third down and in the red zone. While Ertz didn’t score a touchdown, five of his eight catches came on third down and four produced first downs. He finished with a team-high eight grabs for 93 yards. Ertz finished behind Nelson Agholor and Jeffery in third-down catches during the regular season, but he could once again be the X-factor on third down in the Super Bowl.

7. The Eagles’ wide receivers were explosive. In his five games since taking over for Wentz, Foles had completed just one pass that traveled more than 20 yards in the air – a 17-yard hookup with Ertz. But on Sunday, he completed 4 of 6 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns on passes of more than 20 yards. Jeffery’s 53-yard touchdown was the longest.

The offensive line did a great job of giving Foles time to make that throw on what was essentially a scramble drill. Smith’s 41-yard score came off the flea-flicker. He made a spectacular catch just inside the pylon, but Foles tossed a dart. Smith probably should have caught Foles’ first bomb. He had a step and the ball was slightly underthrown, but it was in his grasp until it wasn’t. Agholor added a 42-yard grab later in the game.

8. To beat the Patriots, the Eagles will likely have to keep winning in the trenches. The Eagles have an advantage on both lines. They should have a decided one on offense. The Patriots have struggled to generate a pass rush all season, and the same held against the Jaguars. Foles has been sacked just twice in the last two games. Halapoulivaati Vaitai was supposed to succumb to Vikings end Everson Griffen, but he allowed virtually squat. Lane Johnson basically locked down the other flank. Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski were an iron wall inside.

The Patriots should never be underestimated, but the Eagles should win this matchup. On the other side of the ball, the Eagles’ d-line has dominated most offensive lines this season. The same applied against a suspect Vikings unit. There’s just so much depth. Barnett and Long could start for some teams. Steven Means, who hardly ever dresses, would be a part of most rotations. And the starters, led by Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, are relentless. The Patriots’ o-line is solid, and Tom Brady likes to get the ball out quickly, but if the Eagles front controls the line on early downs, even the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback will have his work cut out.

9. The Eagles pass defense was dynamite. Schwartz generated pressure with his blitz packages and just a basic four-man rush, but it’s not like Keenum was under constant assault. He had time to throw the ball downfield and hit on a few deep throws, as mentioned above. But Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who had great regular seasons that carried over into last week’s divisional round victory, did little damage against the Eagles secondary. They averaged just 8.9 yards per catch. Darby gave up a few softies, but he kept his side in check and never let a receiver get behind him. The same went for Jalen Mills. Schwartz knows he has a good tackling team. He doesn’t need his corners to press all the time. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod were solid, per usual. And the cover linebackers, particularly, Mychal Kendricks, managed to keep the dumps to the running backs in check. It was a team effort. Stopping the Vikings on the ground, of course, forced the Vikings into enough third and longs to assist the back end.

10. And some leftovers … Ajayi led the running backs with 30 of 65 snaps, followed by Corey Clement (15), and Blount (11). … Receiver Mack Hollins (15 snaps) cut a little into Smith’s playing time. His rub route – he feigned a throw in his direction – opened Ertz on a key early third down conversion.

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