Vikings vs. Eagles: NFC Championship Game preview

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The Backstory


If you had Case Keenum playing Nick Foles for the NFC's spot in Super Bowl LII, Keenum had a message for you this week: "Good job to all you guys."

Keenum, the improbable Minnesota Vikings starting quarterback, was obviously being facetious. Mostly because nobody had this matchup pegged, even when it became a real possibility when Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL in the Philadelphia Eagles' Week 14 win.

Just how unlikely is it for these two to square off at 6:40 p.m. ET on Sunday for the NFC title? Per NFL Research, the last time a conference championship matchup featured two quarterbacks who weren't their team's respective Week 1 starter was at least 1970. The last time two quarterbacks with fewer than three games of playoff experience faced each other in the conference championship game was 2006.

So how exactly did they get here? The unlikely road for Keenum began in Week 2, when coach Mike Zimmer told reporters Sam Bradford had a knee injury that would sideline him. Keenum went on to have a Cinderella season filling in for the injured starter, tossing 22 touchdowns to just seven picks in the regular season before being part of the greatest play in Vikings history last weekend.

Foles, meanwhile, took over for Wentz after the quarterback had knee surgery in Week 15. He threw for four touchdowns in his first relief start -- a win over the New York Giants -- but the sailing hasn't been smooth since. The Eagles have manuevered around the quarterback's shaky play, though, and now he has a chance to play in the Super Bowl.

Under Pressure


Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback: Even though both of these teams, for the most part, have benefited from strong defenses and raucous home crowds to get to this point, Keenum has done more than his fair share to earn his place as the Vikings' starter. Foles, on the other hand, is still looking for a definining moment or game that proves he can truly captain the Eagles' ship to their first Super Bowl title. He did complete 23 of 30 passes for 246 yards in the Eagles' Divisional Round win over the Atlanta Falcons, but as colleague Chris Wesseling noted in his postgame analysis, some fortuitous bounces, Doug Pederson play calls and conservative Foles throws had more to do with his 100.1 passer rating than anything.

Since Foles has taken over the starting reins from Wentz -- not counting when he was removed after just one quarter in the Eagles' Week 17 meaningless game against the Dallas Cowboys -- the Eagles have seen their points per game drop (31.1 to 22.7), total yards per game drop (390.5 to 297), total passing yards per game drop (247.5 to 203), rushing yards per game drop (143 to 94) and third-down percentage drop (45.3 to 32.5). Against a Vikings defense that is No. 1 in total yards, No. 2 in rushing defense and No. 2 in passing defense, the Eagles are going to need Foles to do far more than just manage the game if they want to advance to the Super Bowl.

Vikings offensive line: The New Orleans Saints provided the blueprint for halting the Keenum show last weekend: Get to him. Per Pro Football Focus, Keenum logged just three completions on 11 attempts and threw a pick (for a 5.1 passer rating) when he faced Saints pressure. The QB was more effective against the pass rush during the regular season, posting the eighth-best passer rating against pressure among all quarterbacks. With the weight of the playoffs already putting pressure on the former backup quarterback, getting bodies to and around him clearly makes a difference.

Philadelphia boasts one of the best fronts when it comes to getting to the passer. Seven Eagles have logged 20-plus pressures this season, per PFF, with Brandon Graham (60), Chris Long (52) and Fletcher Cox (50) leading the way. The whole goal of the Vikings should be to make Foles beat them. But if they can't keep Keenum upright, and put points on the board to force the ball into Foles' hands, Minnesota could be in trouble.

Matchup to Watch


Stefon Diggs vs. Jalen Mills: Diggs, the author of the "Minneapolis Miracle," is coming off a monster game and has caught a touchdown in four straight contests. He also, per PFF, has a league-leading 141.2 passer rating when targeted on contested catches. With Mills primarily lining up at the left cornerback spot, he's expected to draw Diggs for most of Sunday's matchup. Mills has been targeted the fourth-most among all players this season, drawing 104 passes his way. If he can't contain the Vikings' wideout, Philadelphia might have to devote more resources to help the cornerback, which should leave other Vikings weapons like Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph a chance to capitalize on some one-on-one matchups.

Vikings ends Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter vs. Eagles tackles Lane Johnson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Griffen and Hunter have been two of the league's best pass rushers over the past two seasons, with Griffen compiling 21 sacks and Hunter logging 19.5 (both among the top 13 in the NFL). While Johnson has been a stellar right tackle -- Zimmer said Thursday he was "not just a good player, but a great player" -- Vaitai has been beatable. Per PFF, he's given up nine sacks, which is tied for second most among all offensive tackles. If the Vikings can force the Eagles to turn to Foles to win the game, Vaitai and Johnson will have to hold up against the Vikings' star edge rushers to give their QB a chance.

Prediction


While Philadelphia will certainly be a wild atmosphere, with the potential for thousands of fans wearing (under)dog masks, the script for the Vikings just seems too clear. Use the stout defense to stop the Eagles' rushing attack, force Foles into mistakes and let the Keenum/Diggs/Theilen/Rudolph attack score points. It won't be easy, considering the Eagles' front seven has been so dominant, but a late field goal this week feels like it'll be enough to vault Minnesota to the first-ever home Super Bowl game.

Minnesota Vikings 23, Philadelphia Eagles 20

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