Vikings, Eagles aiming for Super Bowl
By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer
Matchups for the NFC championship game Sunday between the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles:
When the Vikings (14-3) have the ball:
Watch out for Stefon Diggs (14) on a desperation pass!
Seriously, Vikings receivers are more dangerous than given credit for. Indeed, that’s also true for Philadelphia’s wideouts.
Diggs, breakout star Adam Thielen (19), Jarius Wright (17) and even journeyman Michael Floyd (18) can make plays, though the big confrontations will be Thielen and Diggs against CBs Jalen Mills (31) and Ronald Darby (41). These matchups favor QB Case Keenum (7), who has gone from undistinguished fill-in to standout clutch passer.
The passing game will be a key for the Vikings, who will want to get TE Kyle Rudolph (82) involved early. Although the Vikes rank seventh in rushing yardage gained this season — Latavius Murray (25) led the way with 842 yards and eight touchdowns, and was backed by Jerick McKinnon (21) — the Eagles, led by DT Fletcher Cox (91) on a solid front seven, were stingiest against the ground game.
If DLs Cox, Brandon Graham (55), rookie Derek Barnett (96), Chris Long (56) and some of the linebackers can win against an offensive line filled mostly with castoffs — but an efficient enough unit to help Minnesota’s offense score 40 touchdowns — Keenum will need to improvise.
Of course, he’s shown he’s pretty good at that.
When the Eagles (14-3) have the ball:
The Vikings have the NFL’s top-ranked defense overall, with splits of second against the rush and the pass. It is led by cornerback Xavier Rhodes (29) and safety Harrison Smith (22), both All-Pros, and a terrific line featuring ends Everson Griffen (97) and Danielle Hunter (99). Few teams have a better linebacking group, with Anthony Barr (55) the main playmaker.
Philly’s challenges include protecting QB Nick Foles (9), who’s not nearly as creative or elusive as Carson Wentz was. Foles needs time to connect with the likes of WRs Alshon Jeffery (17), Nelson Agholor (13) and Torrey Smith (82) and TE Zach Ertz (86). Ertz’s matchups with Barr or Smith could be decisive.
The Eagles have a deep backfield, though the way they use Jay Ajayi (36), LeGarrette Blount (29) and Corey Clement (30) can be confounding.
If they get room to run, it will be because All-Pros center Jason Kelce (62) and RT Lane Johnson (65) won against that impressive D-line on the other side.
Foles comes off a strong performance that should silence the doubters. He also is facing a better defense — the best D — this week.
Kai Forbath (2) has missed 8 of 55 extra points in 24 games with Minnesota. After going 15 for 15 on field goals in 2016, he fell off in 2017 by converting 32 of 38. But Forbath went 3 for 3 in single-digit temperatures at Green Bay on Dec. 23, including a 49-yarder. In the divisional-round win at home over New Orleans, he went 3 for 4, including the go-ahead 53-yard kick with 1:23 left.
Marcus Sherels (35) is one of the smallest players in the NFL, but one of the most accomplished punt returners with five touchdowns over the past six seasons. He ranked seventh with an average of 9.5 yards in 2017.
Ryan Quigley (4) finished his first regular season with the Vikings without a touchback, just the second punter to do so in a full season since the NFL began tracking the statistic in 1991.
The player to watch the most is long snapper Jeff Overbaugh (44), who became an emergency replacement after Kevin McDermott hurt his shoulder at Green Bay.
Philadelphia’s Jake Elliott (4) set a postseason club record with a 53-yard field goal last week, but he missed his fourth extra point in 43 tries this season. Elliott is 6 of 7 from 50 or more yards, including a 61-yarder.
P Donnie Jones (8) ranked 17th in net average and Kenjon Barner (38) filled in nicely after Darren Sproles (43) was injured. Barner’s best return went for 76 yards.
Coverage units are solid despite losing special-teams captain Chris Maragos
Two longtime assistants who have had impressive success in charge.
Mike Zimmer achieved plenty as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, but often was passed over for head coach openings. That changed in 2014 when the Wilf family turned to Zimmer, whose upfront style has been refreshing in the Twin Cities. He is 40-26.
In Pat Shurmur (offense) and George Edwards (defense), he has two top coordinators. Shurmur, a former head coach in Cleveland, has been on several team’s radars for such openings this month.
Former NFL QB Doug Pederson was a loyal assistant for Andy Reid, and he’s got Reid’s former team back in contention for the big game. Pederson’s best skill might be finding the right players for each situation.
He’s 21-12, and he got the Eagles this far despite losing MVP contender QB Carson Wentz in December.
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich also has plugged in plenty of players — including Foles — and prospered. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz could be headed for another head coaching opportunity.
Neither team has won a Super Bowl. The Vikings haven’t even been to one since their fourth loss in as many tries, in the 1977 game. No member of the current team was born then.
Minnesota’s incentive is enhanced by the chance to become the first franchise to host the big game in its stadium. Don’t underestimate that kind of motivation.
And don’t overlook the impetus the Eagles are getting from being a top-seeded underdog in successive playoff home games.