A thorough look at, and prediction for, the NFC championship game, scheduled for 6:40 p.m. Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Eagles averaged just 3.0 yards per carry against a Falcons defense that isn't nearly as good as the one they'll face this week. They were effective early on. Jay Ajayi gained 49 yards on his first seven carries. But he never had another run longer than 2 yards. The Eagles finished third in the league in rushing, but in their last six games they have averaged just 98.2 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry. In the nine games before that: 161.9 yards per game and 4.7 per carry. They haven't run the ball very well on first down lately. They averaged just 2.4 yards per carry on first down against the Falcons and 3.2 in the last six games. The Vikings are second to the Eagles in run defense (83.6 yards per game) and fifth in opponent rush average (3.7 per carry). Their front seven is big and fast, and like the Eagles, they have a secondary that excels in run support. They gave up just 20 runs of 10 yards or more this season. That's the fewest, by far, in the league.
Nick Foles threw four touchdown passes and had a 115.8 passer rating in his first start, against the Giants, after Carson Wentz got hurt. But in his final five quarters of regular-season work, he struggled, completing just 46.9 percent of his passes, averaging just 4.1 yards per attempt, and throwing one touchdown and two interceptions. He struggled early against the Falcons last week before gaining his footing with short, quick, high-percentage passes off run-pass options. Twenty of his 28 aimed passes traveled 6 yards or less in the air, and only four were longer than 11 yards. Foles, who had completed just 11 of 27 pass attempts on third down in the regular-season, was effective on third down against the Falcons, going 5 for 7 for 70 yards. Four of his five completions resulted in first downs. The Vikings are going to be much tougher to throw on than the Falcons. They gave up a league-low 13 touchdown passes and 35 pass plays of 20-plus yards, and finished first in yards allowed per attempt (6.0) and third in opponent passer rating (73.0).
The Vikings finished seventh in rushing (122.3) but only 23rd in rush average (3.9). They averaged the second-most rush attempts in the NFL this season (31.2 per game) and finished fourth in run-play percentage (47.1). With a defense that can keep the game close, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will not abandon the run. The Vikings lost their best running back, rookie Dalvin Cook, in Week 4. Neither Jerick McKinnon nor Latvius Murray is an elite runner. But the 6-2, 225-pound Murray, who has sub-4.4 speed, can get to the edge, where the Eagles struggled last week against the Falcons. Tevin Coleman rushed for 79 yards on 10 carries and had four double-digit-yard runs against them. Most of those yards came outside the ends. The Vikings were just 21st in first-down rush average (3.73). Only two teams have run the ball more than 25 times against the Eagles this season: the Cowboys twice, and the Raiders. The Eagles finished first in run defense (79.2 yards per game), but have allowed 4.3 yards per carry in their last six games.
Under Pat Shurmur's live-to-fight-another-day direction, Case Keenum has done an efficient job since replacing Sam Bradford. He finished seventh in passer rating (98.3), second in completion percentage (67.6) and fourth in interception percentage (only 7 in 481 attempts). Keenum spreads the ball around. He had four receivers with 50-plus catches, including tight end Kyle Rudolph (57 catches, 8 TDs) and running back Jerick McKinnon (51 catches, 8.3 yards per catch). Adam Thielen is his go-to guy. He had a team-high 91 catches and finished second in the league in third-down receptions (33). The Eagles did a nice job on Matt Ryan last week with their keep-the-ball-in-front-of-them approach. Ryan averaged just 5.83 yards per attempt, his second-lowest average of the season. The Eagles allowed just 40 pass plays of 20-plus yards, the fifth fewest in the league. They had 19 interceptions, fourth most in the league. Nine of them came on third down, where they had an impressive 65.7 opponent passer rating in the regular season.
Rookie kicker Jake Elliott was 3 for 3 on field goal attempts last week, including a big 53-yarder with no time left in the first half. He has made 27 of his last 30 attempts and is 13 for 15 from 45-plus (6 for 7 from 50-plus). Where he has struggled is short-range. He has missed three PATs, including one last week after the Eagles' only touchdown, and is just 4 for 7 on field goal attempts from 30 to 39 yards. Sunday's game is expected to be low-scoring. So every kick is going to count. Vikings kicker Kai Forbath is very good. He has an 85.9 percent career accuracy rate. He has made 32 of 38 attempts this season, including 12 of 16 from 40-plus (6 for 9 from 50-plus). He had 49- and 53-yard field goals in last week's win over the Saints. That was in a dome, but Forbath has been accurate outside. He actually has a better field goal accuracy rate outdoors (88.2) than indoors (83.0) in his career. The Vikings have one of the league's more dangerous return men in Marcus Sherels. He had two punt returns for scores last season and has five in his career.
Vikings 16, Eagles 13
Eagles tight end Zach Ertz vs. Vikings safety Harrison Smith. Smith had five interceptions and was a first-team all-pro selection. Ertz has a team-high eight red-zone touchdowns, but has 60-plus receiving yards in just two of his last eight games. Advantage: Vikings
Eagles left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen: This will be one of Vaitai's toughest challenges of the season. The 6-3, 280-pound Griffen, whom Doug Pederson described as a "game-wrecker,'' has 13 sacks. Advantage: Vikings
Eagles cornerbacks Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, and Patrick Robinson vs. Vikings wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stephon Diggs: Thielen, who lines up both inside and outside, and Diggs have combined for 155 catches, 2,125 yards and 12 touchdowns. Thielen is second in the NFL in third-down receptions (33). Advantage: Even
Eagles: Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Played 90 percent of the snaps against the Falcons. He dad a season-high seven tackles, including two for losses, and a sack and two hurries.
Vikings: Wide receiver Stefon Diggs. He Had six catches for 137 yards against the Saints, including the game-ending 61-yard touchdown catch-and-run.
Eagles: Tight end Zach Ertz. He had more than 60 receiving yards in just two of his last eight games.
Vikings: Tight end Kyle Rudolph. He had just seven catches for 37 yards and no touchdowns in the Vikings' last three games.