Well here we are.
The NFL season is coming to a conclusion. Just as nobody predicted, the New England Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings are the final four teams.
Each team’s path to the conference championship drastically differs. This is the seventh time in a row the Patriots have made it to the AFC Championship game and they have the best coach and quarterback duo of all-time. Everyone else didn’t make the playoffs last season. The Jaguars were 3-13 with Gus Bradley as head coach. The Eagles were 7-9 in the first year with a rookies Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson. The Vikings were 8-8 with Sam Bradford as their starting quarterback.
But these teams don’t differ in one thing: stellar defense.
In the regular season, the Vikings ranked first in yards allowed per game at 275.9, the Jaguars ranked second at 286.1 and the ranked Eagles fourth at 306.5. The Patriots ranked near the bottom of the league in yards allowed per game, but were fifth in points allowed at 18.5. The Vikings were once again first at 15.8, the Jaguars were second at 16.8 and the Eagles were fourth at 18.4
You hear it all the time, defense wins championships and this year is no different.
And although the New England-Jacksonville tilt will be more about Tom Brady versus the Jaguars defense, the NFC Championship will be entirely about defense.
It’s unlikely this game will become the Battle of the Backups with both backup quarterbacks torching two of the best defenses in the league. Hey, anything’s possible, but a battle of hard-nosed, gritty, cold-weather defenses seems more likely to be the consensus when this one is over.
Let’s take a look at how the Eagles and Vikings defenses will attempt to stop the opposing offenses and gain a berth to the Super Bowl.
How will Minnesota stop Philadelphia’s offense?
The Eagles offense showed life in the Divisional Round against the Atlanta Falcons. They had success with run-pass option plays or RPO’s (thanks Cris Collinsworth). Nick Foles became comfortable using these plays as he was able to keep his eyes down field and hand it off if he didn’t see anywhere to throw.
I’m sure the Minnesota defense has watched this on tape and they have the players to stop it.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith make up one of the best defensive backfields in the league. The passes by Foles must be extremely accurate or they will be deflected or intercepted. Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz and the Eagles’ pass-catchers can pose some issues but the Vikings secondary should be able to handle it.
Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have the athleticism to stay in coverage and take away the pass and/or come up and make a tackle in the run game. Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter form a defensive line that can both stuff the run and get pressure on the quarterback. All of these aspects will make life difficult for the Philadelphia offense.
They are seamlessly able to play zone, man, or a mixture of both. If Doug Pederson decides to continue to rely on RPO’s, a quick audible from coach Mike Zimmer’s frequent man coverage to zone could create a game-changing turnover. The Eagles were fortunate Foles didn’t commit a turnover against Atlanta because Jay Ajayi lost a fumble and the special teams unit muffed a punt.
The Vikings defense will be looking to rattle Foles by showing him different formations and coverages with the hopes of forcing him into a mistake.
It’s also pivotal the Vikings stop the Eagles’ running game, which ranked third in the league at 132.2 yards per game in the regular season. The Vikings have beaten the Los Angeles Rams, who ranked eighth in this category, and the New Orleans Saints twice, who ranked fifth in this category. Their only loss to a top-10 rushing team was to the Carolina Panthers where Jonathan Stewart rushed for over 100 yards and had three touchdowns.
Maybe the Eagles will be looking at the Panthers game for some ideas.
How will Philadelphia stop Minnesota’s offense?
There are two parts to the Eagles’ defense that make it successful: stopping the run and getting after the quarterback. They’ve been doing this all year and need to continue to do it to win the NFC Championship game. This all starts with the defensive line, where players like Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are two of the best in the business.
They should also have confidence in the abilities of the secondary and Jim Schwartz’s scheme after holding former MVP Matt Ryan to 201 passing yards. Case Keenum has had a very good year, but he’s not in the argument for MVP.
The Minnesota running game isn’t extraordinary either with Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon being the main suspects in a 3.3 yard rushing average in their Divisional Round game against the Saints. The Eagles shouldn’t overlook the running backs, but they have had one of the best run-stopping defenses in the league this season and should continue stuffing the run.
Stopping the Minnesota wide receivers is another story.
Against Atlanta, the Eagles “held” Julio Jones to 101 receiving yards. That was a positive because he didn’t score a touchdown and no other Atlanta receiver had more than 50 receiving yards. Three Vikings receivers had over 50 yards against the Saints and one wasn’t even dynamic tight end Kyle Rudolph. The defense is the main reason the Vikings are in the championship game. But the pass-catchers have fueled Keenum’s stellar season, which has put the team over the top.
It’s important the Eagles do not let multiple players hurt them. The route running of Adam Thielen and the speed, and now overflowing confidence, of Stefon Diggs poses a big challenge for Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills. The Philadelphia corners are capable but are the weakest point on the defense. If the Minnesota receivers start to get the advantage, an adjustment is in store. Whether to bring more pressure or drop more defenders into coverage will be the main question for Jim Schwartz.
It’s also important the secondary continues to prevent long plays and make sound tackles. They allowed players to make catches in front of them in the Falcons game while not allowing much YAC. That’ll be another key to stopping Minnesota, as the Saints and Marcus Williams can attest.
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