Neither the Minnesota Vikings nor the Philadelphia Eagles made the playoffs last year. Their quarterbacks, Case Keenum (right) and Nick Foles, were backups on the Week 1 roster, both rejected starters from the (formerly) terrible Rams. Leaders Mike Zimmer and Doug Pederson have a combined six years of head coaching experience.
But here we are, writing the final chapters of this unpredictable NFL season and these teams are the last two standing in the NFC. At stake is a bid to a Super Bowl, a chance for a modern era NFL championship both teams are desperate to win. Combined, they’re 0-6 in the big game, without an appearance since the Donovan McNabb-led Eagles earned a trip way back in 2005.
Both teams feel lucky to be here for two very different reasons. The Eagles have made it despite losing the potential league MVP, Carson Wentz, to a torn ACL one month before the end of the regular season. After a shaky fill-in job by Foles, a clean performance Sunday squeaked them past the Falcons and into the NFC title game on their home field.
As for the Vikings? It was the “Minnesota Miracle” that kept them alive for the first home Super Bowl in NFL history. When all seemed lost against the Saints, down 24-23 with 10 seconds left Keenum’s desperation heave to Stefon Diggs turned into a 61-yard waltz into the end zone. A missed tackle by Saints rookie Marcus Williams paired with some heads-up thinking by Diggs to stay in bounds saved what’s been a special season for this group.
The Vikings, too, have gone through quarterback adjustments; Teddy Bridgewater isn’t even active for this game while Bridgewater’s stopgap, Sam Bradford, will serve as the backup. It’s been Keenum, 9-15 as a starter before 2017, who has blossomed into the unquestioned leader of this team.
It’s two surprise names under center leading two teams with no better than 28/1 odds to make the Super Bowl at the start of the season.
Which Cinderella will survive for one final round?
NFC Championship: Minnesota at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 21 at 6:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Vikings -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Which QB can avoid a game-ending mistake?
Case Keenum and Nick Foles (right) actually know each other well: they were teammates on the Rams in 2015 when both were acquired in late summer trades. Foles was swapped for longtime starter Sam Bradford and began the year under center; but by the end of the year, poor play left Keenum in charge.
Neither quarterback impressed over the long-term and both signed deals to be backups at the start of 2017. But looking at the stat sheet, it’s clear Keenum has been the better quarterback. He’s 11-3 as a starter this season while completing nearly 68 percent of his passes, second in the NFL to Drew Brees. With 3,547 passing yards, Keenum steadied an offense that had been inconsistent under Bradford and upped the level of play for wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Keenum excelled in late-game scenarios and comes in with confidence after delivering against the Saints under pressure.
Most importantly, Keenum takes care of the football. He threw just seven interceptions all season and fumbled the ball only once. Compare that to Foles, who’s fumbled six times in just a quarter of a season as the starter. Perhaps the best thing the Eagles quarterback did Sunday against the Falcons was cover a fumble at the goal line that threatened to squander momentum during the first half.
But Foles, considering his limited time under center this season, shook off the rust well against the Falcons. A clean game (no picks), only one sack, and 246 passing yards left him with a QB rating of 100.1. Foles is the only quarterback in NFL history to have a 100 rating or better in his first two postseason starts.
The pressure will be on both men as this game features the NFL’s two best defenses against the run during the regular season. Neither the Vikings nor the Eagles ran for or gave up 100 rushing yards in the Divisional Round last week. Therefore, the struggles on the ground are likely to continue.
So both quarterbacks will have to play a clean game for their team to win. History and talent points toward Foles making the mistake but keep in mind it was Keenum’s third quarter interception last week that got the Saints back in the game. This one could go either way.
2. Which defense can potentially swing the game?
The Eagles’ front seven will be primed and ready for Sunday. The Vikings, despite their lack of success running the ball do so 47.1 percent of the time, the fourth-highest ratio in the NFL this season. It’s going to be an uphill battle, though against a run defense that allowed less than 80 yards per game.
Brandon Graham will be key to stuffing the 1-2 punch of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. He also may have the weakest offensive line matchup, going up against Rashod Hill, who was thrust into a starting role when Nick Easton broke his ankle earlier this season.
But perhaps the most important Eagle on the field Sunday will be Fletcher Cox. The Pro Bowler lived up to expectations against the Falcons, lauded for his superior play (seven tackles, two TFL and a sack). He needs to provide a similar disruption to the Vikings’ offensive line, keeping Keenum out of rhythm.
On the Vikings’ side, they have a Pro Bowler leading every portion of their defense. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (right) will likely draw the Eagles’ top receiving threat, Alshon Jeffery. It’s been Jeffery, not tight end Zach Ertz who’s been a favorite target of Foles and he had a team-high 61 receiving yards against the Falcons.
Defensive end Everson Griffen, meanwhile, had 13 sacks and three forced fumbles during the regular season. It’s his job to get Foles to put the ball on the ground. Linebacker Anthony Barr can disrupt both the pass and run games, a problem the Eagles need to avoid at all costs.
3. The kicking game
Jake Elliott drove Eagles fans crazy last week. For a kicker who’s been clutch all season, Elliott finds himself failing too often when the adrenaline wears off. The goodwill of going 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 53-yarder, was erased by a bizarre missed extra point try and a kickoff that sailed out of bounds.
Still, Elliott holds the edge any day over Vikings kicker Kai Forbath. Forbath missed six field goals during the regular season plus one last week against the Saints. He’s had three kicks (field goal, two PATs) blocked by the defense and that’s with the benefit of kicking in a windless dome for half the year.
It’s an important edge to have on a day expected to be chilly (50 degrees) with wind out of the west from 10-15 MPH. Two high-powered defenses equal a low-scoring game where field position and punting could make the difference.
That’s where punters (yes, punters) could also come into play. Pro Bowler Donnie Jones of the Eagles put two of his three punts inside the 20 last week. Compare that to Ryan Quigley, who averaged less than 32 yards on his punts and had one blocked last week that set up a Saints touchdown. Quigley’s 42.2 average was dead last this season among punters who started all 16 games in the NFL.
That’s a small but subtle difference, which could be a game-changer in a one-score game.
This game is composed of two up-and-coming head coaches who have sold their team on the underdog theory. It’s two evenly matched opponents built to win this game the old-fashioned way: on defense and special teams.
If the Eagles can keep the score down, make a play or two on Case Keenum while Nick Foles has another clean performance, they’ll come out on top. But a higher score means trouble and a likely Vikings win. Keenum and company have the pieces to pile up 24 or 31 points; it’s just whether they can solve the puzzle of the Eagles’ defense and if the offensive line can keep the pressure at bay.
One other note to keep in mind: the Vikings aren’t used to playing outdoors. While the temperature will be warmer than it has been all winter, Keenum still has to deal with chilly weather and a wind that will likely be unpredictable. Add in a rabid Philadelphia fan base (standing room only tickets were going for $700 at press time) and you can never discount home-field advantage. Remember, the Eagles were the only de facto undefeated team at home this season. (They were 7-1 at Lincoln Financial Field with the only loss in a meaningless regular season finale against the Cowboys, a game where the team pulled several of its starters by halftime).