The Eagles knew going in that it was going to come down to third down.
If they were going to beat the Vikings in Sunday night’s NFC championship game and make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in 13 years, they were going to have to make plays on third down.
Their defense was going to have to shut the Vikings down on third down. And their offense was going to have to make plays on third down against a defense that was the best in the NFL at muzzling teams on the “money’’ down.
And they did it. Boy, did they do it.
Jim Schwartz’s aggressive defense forced two Vikings first-half turnovers on third down that the Eagles turned into 14 points.
And quarterback Nick Foles turned back the clock to 2013 and absolutely owned third down as the Eagles coasted to a stunning 38-7 win over the Vikings that punched their ticket to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis in two weeks.
Foles completed 10 of 11 third-down passes in the win for 159 yards and two touchdowns, both to Alshon Jeffery. The Eagles converted 10 of 14 third-down opportunities in the win.
Foles’ impressive performance came against a defense that had held opponents to a league-best 25.2 percent success rate on third down this season.
“We were hearing all week how good they were on third down,” right tackle Lane Johnson said. “Twenty-five percent conversion and all that. We knew how important third down was going to be. We made some huge plays early on. And once it started, the confidence snowballed.”
Getting excellent protection from Johnson and the rest of the offensive line, Foles found Jeffery, who had just three receptions all season on throws that traveled 20 yards or more, on a deep ball on third-and-10 for a 53-yard touchdown with 1:09 left in the first half that gave the Eagles a 21-7 lead. Foles connected with Jeffery on third down again early in the fourth quarter for a five-yard touchdown that put the Eagles up by 31.
“I was just so impressed with his balls down the field,” center Jason Kelce said of Foles’ performance. “He was throwing dimes down the field.”
Foles’ only third-down incompletion of the game came on the Eagles’ first possession. He had tight end Trey Burton wide open on the sideline, but Burton was unable to get both feet inbounds. Foles completed his next 10 third-down passes.
Last week, the Vikings held Drew Brees and the Saints to just two third-down conversions in nine opportunities. Brees owned the league’s sixth best third-down passer rating (94.2) during the regular-season. He had completed 67.8 percent of his third-down attempts. Against the Vikings, he was 1-for-4 for five yards and was sacked once.
The Vikings blitzed Foles, including several times on third down. But the Eagles either picked it up or Foles got the ball out before they got to him.
“They tried to come after us, and Nick hurt them bad,” Kelce said. “Obviously, you want to try to stay out of third-and-longs against them. They have some incredible blitz packages and games that they do.
“But I thought that, for the most part, we did a good job of picking that stuff up. Even when we didn’t, I thought Nick, for the most part, knew where he wanted to go with the ball [and got it out quickly]. He played lights out. When the quarterback throws like that and makes plays down the field like he did tonight, I’m really happy for him.”
On the other side of the ball, Schwartz’s defense continued its season-long third-down dominance. The Vikings came out on their first possession and ran the ball well, picking up 27 yards on their first six. Then a defensive mixup left tight end Kyle Rudolph wide open and Case Keenum hit him for a 25-yard touchdown to give the Vikings a quick 7-0 lead.
But on the Vikings’ next possession, defensive end Chris Long, who has making big plays in big games all season long, got to Keenum on a third-and-8 play and forced a interception that cornerback Patrick Robinson returned 50 yards for a game-tying touchdown. It was the Eagles’ 20th interception in 18 games this season and the 10th on third down.
“We had to make a play,” Long said. “They drove right down and scored. If we didn’t have belief in ourselves and a little toughness, you might’ve thought, ‘Oh man, this is going to be a long night.’ I know some people probably thought that watching on TV. But we know what we’re capable of. As a defense, as an offense, as a football team.
In the second quarter, rookie defensive end Derek Barnett beat left tackle Riley Reiff around the edge and stripped the ball from Keenum on a third-and-5 at the Philadelphia 16. Long recovered the loose ball, killing a Minnesota scoring opportunity.
The Vikings converted four of nine third-down opportunities in the first half, but the two turnovers were killers.
This was a Vikings offense that had committed only 14 turnovers this season, the third fewest in the league. Keenum had just seven interceptions during the regular season, but four of them had been on third downs of 8 yards or more.
“No quarterback likes third-and-long, Long said. “When you look at their percentages, they were real efficient [on third down] all year. But they were just pounding the football [against other teams]. So they were in a lot of really manageable third downs.
“That’s why, at the end of the day, we knew that stopping the run was paramount.”
The Eagles finished third in third-down defense in the regular season, allowing opponents to convert just 32.2 percent of their third-down opportunities. That was the Eagles’ best percentage since 2008.
The Vikings averaged 31.2 rushing attempts per game this season, which was the second most in the league. Ran it eight times on their first 13 plays Sunday, but just 10 times the rest of the game. They finished with 70 yards on 18 carries against the Eagles’ No. 1-ranked run defense, forcing Keenum to throw the ball a season-high 48 times.
“When they came out and were running the ball well on that first drive, we’re like, ‘Oh,’ “‘ Long said. “But we didn’t panic. We just had to lock it down. We calmed down and got our footing. It kind of epitomizes this team. We’ve been punched in the mouth all year at different times. But it’s how you respond.”
Seven plays after Barnett’s strip sack and Long’s fumble recovery, Foles hit Jeffery for the third-and-10 TD.
Foles and the Eagles converted six of 13 third-down opportunities in last week’s win over the Falcons. Foles was 5-for-7 for 70 yards on third down in the win. Before that, however, he had struggled on third down.
Carson Wentz led the league in third-down passing before tearing his left ACL in Week 14. In 10 regular-season quarters as Wentz’s replacement, Foles was just 11-for-27 for 86 yards on third down.
The Eagles, who at one point before Wentz got hurt, were the league’s top third-down offense, converted just eight of 35 third-down opportunities with Foles behind center in the regular season.
They knew they needed to stay in third-and-manageable situations against the Vikings, and they did. Just three of their 10 third-down situations in the first three quarters were eight yards or more.
And even when they faced third-and-longs, they converted them. Foles’ 53-yard scoring heave to Jeffery was a third-and-10. He hit tight end Zach Ertz for 11 yards and a first down on an early third-and-10, and later hit Ertz again for 15 yards on a third-and-8.
Ertz finished with eight receptions for 93 yards. Four of those catches were on third down. Three of them resulted in first downs.
“I want to make plays when my number’s called,” Ertz said. “I’ve spoken a lot about being the guy on third down and in the red zone. I got my number called fairly often early in the game and tried to make the most of the opportunities.”