By Matt Citak
What a weekend of excitement in the NFC Divisional Round. First the Eagles put on a defensive show, limiting the Falcons to just 10 points en route to an upset win over Atlanta. Then the following day in Minnesota, we saw four lead changes in the final three minutes of the game, which ended with the “Minneapolis Miracle” and the Vikings booking themselves a trip to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship.
In what will go down as one of the craziest games in NFL Postseason history, the Minnesota Vikings have made it back to the NFC Championship for the first time since the 2009 season, thanks to a last-second, 61-yard touchdown catch from Stefon Diggs. The miraculous season continues for Case Keenum and the Vikings, as the journeyman quarterback completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 318 yards, one touchdown and an interception in Minnesota’s 29-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints. However Minnesota couldn’t get much going on the ground, as Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon combined to carry the ball 27 times for just 84 yards (3.1 yards per carry). The Vikings ranked seventh in the league with 122.3 rushing yards per game during the regular season, and will once again have their hands full on Sunday, as Philadelphia finished the year with the NFL’s top-ranked rushing defense, allowing just 79.2 rushing yards per game.
The Eagles may have the league’s top rushing defense, but the Vikings defense is quite impressive in its own right. Minnesota’s defense ended the regular season ranked first in the NFL in total yards allowed (275.9) and points allowed per game (15.8), while finishing second in both passing yards allowed (192.4) and rushing yards allowed per game (83.6). The Saints had some success moving the ball against the Vikings defense on Sunday, as New Orleans gained 358 total yards on the day. But 278 of those yards came from the arm of future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. Minnesota did a tremendous job of limiting the running back pair of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, as the league’s best rushing duo combined for just 68 yards on 21 carries (3.2 yards per carry). The Eagles run game had been one of the best throughout the regular season, but Philadelphia’s drop in quarterback play from Carson Wentz to Nick Foles has had an affect on their rushing attack.
The Philadelphia Eagles rode the superb play of their defense to a 15-10 upset win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons, who averaged 364.8 total yards per game during the regular season, were able to muster just 281 total yards of offense against Philadelphia’s defense. The Eagles were able to hold Matt Ryan in check, limiting last year’s league MVP to 210 yards and one touchdown on a 61.1 completion percentage. Philadelphia also did a good job of getting pressure on Ryan, finishing the game with three sacks and 11 QB hits. Atlanta did find some success running the ball against the NFL’s top rush defense, as Tevin Coleman was able to take 10 carries for 79 yards. However starting running back Devonta Freeman was completely shut down in Philadelphia, gaining only seven yards on 10 carries. Things won’t get any easier for Philadelphia this weekend, as the Vikings ranked within the top 11 in the NFL in total yards (356.9), passing yards (234.6), rushing yards (122.3), and points per game (23.9) during the regular season.
While most believe this game will come down to the performance of the two defenses, the Eagles will need their offense to carry some of the load on Sunday. Philadelphia had one of the most successful rushing attacks throughout the regular season, averaging 132.2 rushing yards per game. But that was not the case in the Divisional Round against the Falcons. Running backs Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, and Corey Clement combined to carry the ball 25 times for just 78 yards (3.1 yards per carry) last weekend, as the running game was shut down in the most crucial of moments. Atlanta dared Nick Foles to beat them with his arm, and luckily for Philadelphia, the 28-year-old quarterback came through. Foles completed 76.7 percent of his passes for 246 yards against Atlanta’s solid pass defense, helping move the Eagles up and down the field to get them in scoring position. Philadelphia will need Foles to limit his mistakes against the Vikings, who will be looking to take advantage of any bad decision the quarterback makes on Sunday, if the Eagles want to win their second consecutive game as the underdog at home.
INSIDE THE NFL guest analyst Brandon Marshall weighed in on this weekend’s NFC Championship game between the Vikings and Eagles.
Marshall, along with Ray Lewis, Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason and James Brown break down this and other NFL storylines all season long each Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime’s Inside The NFL.
Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles – 6:40 PM ET Sunday
CBS Local Sports: Atlanta had mixed results running the ball against the Eagles last weekend- Tevin Coleman found a lot of running room, while Devonta Freeman was completely shut down. How will the Vikings be able to establish the run game against Philadelphia’s top-ranked run defense?
Brandon Marshall: The thing that makes the Vikings offense special is the offense [itself]. It’s not their passing attack or running game [specifically]- it’s all interconnected. It all works together. The passing plays look like running plays, and the running plays look like passing plays. A lot of teams will run an action pass, but they set up that play by using a running play that looks like that to get the defenders to step up to the line of scrimmage. [This is done] in order to get the space behind the linebackers and even the secondary at times. The thing that makes the Vikings offense special is the offense, and how everything looks the same.
CBS Local Sports: Minnesota allowed Drew Brees to throw for almost 300 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday. How will the Vikings defense limit Nick Foles, who completed 76.7 percent of his passes for 246 yards against the Falcons?
Brandon Marshall: That’s Drew Brees. One thing that we know is that Drew Brees throws it all over the field. Coach Payton and the Saints are not afraid to do that, and everyone knows that. Brees is special. This weekend is a totally different scheme and totally different ballgame. It will be a challenge for the Eagles to find holes in Minnesota’s defense. They run a lot of zone. They even play man-to-man. It’s going to be important for them to figure out what Minnesota’s doing pre-snap. If Nick Foles can do that, he’ll have a good chance of finding some holes. But it will be extremely hard [against the Vikings defense].
CBS Local Sports: How can the Eagles defense slow down Case Keenum and this Minnesota offense that seems to be firing on all cylinders?
Brandon Marshall: The game is not going to be won on the offensive side of the ball. It’s going to be a defensive battle [with two of the NFL’s best defenses]. Case Keenum, when he’s called on, makes some huge plays. He’s done it all year. But it shouldn’t be difficult for the Eagles to put a great game plan together to slow him down.
CBS Local Sports: With the Eagles looking for their second consecutive upset win at home and the Vikings coming off the “Minneapolis Miracle,” does either team have an edge in momentum leading up to this NFC Championship showdown?
Brandon Marshall: Not in momentum, but Philadelphia definitely has the edge [overall] because they have the home field advantage. They’re home, and [Lincoln Financial Field] is probably one of the most difficult places to play in the National Football League.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.