An inside look at the 2018 NFC Championship Game rematch
The Minnesota Vikings remember the Philadelphia Eagles nightmare all too well. Their dream to both host and play in a Super Bowl in the same year ended with the awkward reality of a 38-7 drubbing at Lincoln Financial Field this past January. A Vikings defense known for its tenacity looked timid as once-backup QB Nick Foles torched the secondary for 352 yards and three touchdowns. Vikings QB Case Keenum threw a pick-six with a 7-0 lead, a momentum-changer that led to 38 unanswered points. The sea of visiting purple turned red with embarrassment as the Eagles set the stage for what would become a dramatic Super Bowl LII victory against the Patriots.
Nine months later, these Super Bowl-contending teams return to the battlefield but their leadership already looks drastically different. Keenum is now in Denver with familiar NFC East foe Kirk Cousins under center for the Vikings; meanwhile, primary Eagles QB Carson Wentz has fully recovered from a torn ACL that kept him out of last year’s playoff matchup. The cast of characters supporting each team has also changed slightly, the result of free agency and injuries that have forced crucial early-season adjustments.
The Vikings, on paper, seek revenge but both teams are simply seeking stability. They’re sporting a combined record of 3-4-1 heading into Sunday’s game, victimized by uncharacteristically sloppy defensive play.
But both are still very much expected to shake out as NFC contenders, battling in the thick of competitive division races. So this game maintains its importance, serving as an important tiebreaker for home-field advantage or perhaps a wild card berth in a conference where 10-6 might be a necessity to make the postseason.
Minnesota at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 7 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Which defense can get back on track?
Two of the top defenses in the league this year are 10th and 20th, respectively, through four weeks of play. Both the Eagles and Vikings have had embarrassing performances from their units that stand out. Last week, the Eagles allowed three fourth-down conversions in overtime as their secondary was torched by the Titans. A 17-3 lead in the second half turned into a discouraging 26-23 defeat that left them 0-2 on the road so far this season.
Some of that could be blamed on the momentum caused by Titans head coach Mike Vrabel’s aggressive calls. He refused to settle for a game-tying, 50-yard field goal and kept his team marching down the field instead, building confidence in a young offense with each conversion. But the Eagles' secondary has clearly been suspect. Cornerback Jalen Mills, in particular is getting criticism at home for blowing coverages and the Eagles have clearly been victimized by explosive pass plays.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz firmly came out in Mills’ corner this week, entrenching him as the starter but the Vikings’ passing offense will serve as a major test. Adam Thielen has quietly emerged as one of the most talented wide receivers in the league no one knows about while quarterback Kirk Cousins has also developed a strong rapport with Stefon Diggs. Both had more than 120 receiving yards in the Vikings’ 38-31 loss to the Rams last week.
One plus has been the Eagles’ run defense, currently leading the league at 63.8 rushing yards allowed. The Vikings’ run game ranks dead last, which will put even more pressure on Cousins to get the job done. Forget 100 yards; no Viking has rushed for more than 50 so far this year.
Last week also showed how vulnerable the Vikings have been on defense. They allowed an eye-popping 465 passing yards to the Rams’ Jared Goff, who also threw a career-high five touchdown passes and posted a perfect 158.3 QB rating. A secondary that ranked second in passing defense last year is outside the top 20 thus far in 2018. Roughly half-a-dozen defensive players on the roster are dealing with injuries and they’ve lost starting defensive lineman Everson Griffen as he deals with some off-the-field problems.
Head coach Mike Zimmer has built his career as a defensive guru, making the Vikings’ struggles particularly alarming. The fact that their opposing quarterback this week, Carson Wentz, has looked spectacular since his return from injury (348 yards last week vs. the Titans) won’t help their cause any.
2. Can the Eagles' offense overcome their injuries?
How Wentz was so successful last week was impressive considering the long list of injuries the Eagles have on offense. The run game is a mess; Jay Ajayi remains banged up, logging just 70 yards last week and he has limited support in the backfield. Darren Sproles has been battling a hamstring injury and remains questionable this weekend along with second-year back Corey Clement. Rookie Josh Adams is completely unproven and Wendell Smallwood appears to have taken a step back from last season; he’s mostly a change-of-pace back anyway. Add in the Vikings’ historically strong run defense and both run games could be challenged Sunday.
That means the supporting cast for Wentz needs to step up. He has a strong rapport with tight end Zach Ertz but the rest of this cast has either underachieved or been hobbled. Alshon Jeffery was solid last week but still is nursing an injury; free agent pickup Mike Wallace is out indefinitely. Nelson Agholor, in particular has dropped a few balls and it doesn't seem he and Wentz are on the same page yet. Agholor has just nine catches for 46 yards the past two weeks.
3. Which Kirk Cousins will show up?
Cousins entered this season with a reputation for being a feast or famine quarterback and the early going with the Vikings has been no different. He followed up a 425-yard gem against the Packers, one of his best performances in what was ultimately a futile effort (tie) with a horrific, turnover-prone game against Buffalo. Last week, he went for 400-plus yards but the Rams’ offense again wiped out what was otherwise an encouraging bounce-back performance.
That’s been the knock against Cousins through the years, exceptional quarterback play wiped out through either bad luck or bad timing on mistakes. Last year with the Redskins, it was his decision-making (two fumbles, goal-line interception) that made the difference in a season-opening loss against the Eagles. He lost both games against them last season and ultimately proved outmatched by an aggressive pass rush.
Blitzing may be an option on Cousins again with the Vikings' run game on life support. So which Cousins will show up? The All-Pro talent who can beat back the elements, posting another 400-yard game or the QB who’s going to make the wrong throw when it matters? The defense isn’t helping so it’s likely he’ll need an A-plus performance for the Vikings to cash in on enemy territory.
This game is expected to be far closer than January’s blowout. But the Vikings, despite emotion on their side, have had trouble with one of the game’s big storylines this season: special teams play. Former Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey was signed after rookie Daniel Carlson went 0-for-3 in an embarrassing field goal performance against Green Bay a few weeks ago. Bailey was a reliable 3-for-3 against the Rams but none of those field goals were longer than 40 yards.
Jake Elliott, by comparison, is one of the most talented young kickers in the NFL. He’s 6-for-8 this season, untested in the clutch thus far and 0-for-2 on kicks beyond 40 yards. But his track record, which includes a record-setting 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants a year ago, speaks for itself. Elliott and the Eagles have also played well at home, where they’re 15-3 since head coach Doug Pederson’s arrival in Philadelphia.
Those small intangibles should make the difference. An Elliott clutch kick in a close game feels appropriate for two teams that will battle, tooth and nail, down to the wire.
Prediction: Eagles 27, Vikings 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.