Reporters' Notebook

Nick Foles' comfort level, Doug Marrone's role, Vikings' grit

With Championship Sunday upon us,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Julio Jones vouches for Steve Sarkisian.

-- The truth about Doug Marrone's role in Jacksonville.

-- Where the Eagles' D must be careful.

But first, **James Palmer** examines a transformative moment for an unlikely underdog ...

What do you get when a team loses an MVP-candidate quarterback, a future Hall of Fame left tackle, its most dynamic offensive playmaker, a starting middle linebacker, its kicker and a special teams ace for the season?

How about a potential trip to the Super Bowl?

The Eagles are one win away from making the third Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, and once again, the odds are stacked against them finally bringing the Lombardi Trophy to South Philadelphia.

"I think a lot of people don't expect us to win," right tackle Lane Johnson said at his locker on Wednesday. "From that standpoint, we'll just use that to motivate us. That's how it's been ever since Carson (Wentz) went down. That's how it is."

In Week 14, Wentz -- who had become a legit MVP candidate in just his second pro season -- tore his ACL, and the Eagles went from sure-fire Super Bowl contenders to long shots. Philadelphia still finished with the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which meant a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This also meant the team became the first top seed to open the playoffs as an underdog when the Eagles hosted the sixth-seeded Falconsin last week's Divisional Round. A 15-10 victory over Atlanta, fueled by doubters, prompted Johnson and defensive end Chris Long to don postgame underdog masks, while players voiced their opinions about predictions.

"I was watching ESPN today, and all five analysts, experts, they call themselves, picked the Falcons to win," tight end Zach Ertz told me after the game. "I'm glad they're not in charge of my finances by any means, picking stocks here and there. If they're going to call us underdogs again next week, I'm fine with it."

This week, the Eagles host the second-seeded Vikings -- who are riding sky-high after one of the greatest finishes in playoff history -- in the NFC Championship Game. Philadelphia is, once again, considered the underdog. But if you dive in and take a look at what went down in South Philly during the bye week two weeks ago, your perception of the Eagles' future might be altered.

Veteran backup Nick Foles -- who made the Pro Bowl with the Eagles in 2013, was traded to the Rams in 2015, contemplated retirement, then spent the 2016 season with the Chiefs before rejoining the Eagles -- became the starter in Philadelphia (again) after Wentz was lost for the season. The problem was, Foles hadn't spent any time during the season throwing to first-team receivers. He even missed the large number of reps that quarterbacks and pass catchers get during training camp because of a sore elbow.

"The thing with Nick is that we didn't even have a training camp with him," Ertz told me. "He didn't play a preseason game; he was hurt all training camp. So the past two weeks was an opportunity for us to get on the same page, get the timing down. Quarterback-receiver timing in the NFL is the biggest reason for success. You got to be on the same page; you got to get the ball up and down the field on time and [accurately]. Nick is a very accurate quarterback; we just had to get the timing down."

That's all well and good, but why were the two weeks after the conclusion to the regular season more productive than the final three weeks of the regular season, when Foles assumed starting duties, in terms of building that chemistry? The difference was the style of practices the Eagles held. Head coach Doug Pederson told me that, because the Eagles were so banged up physically heading into the Raiders game in Week 16, they could only hold walk-through practices. Those are not entirely conducive to building chemistry and timing.

That changed during the bye week. A group of veteran players approached Pederson and asked if they could practice in pads during the bye week, and at full speed as much as possible. Pederson agreed -- and because he was already planning to hold a padded practice the following week (before last Saturday's game against Atlanta), Foles ended up having two practices in which the bullets were flying at a speed as close as possible to what he'd see in games.

During those practices, Pederson said, is when the timing came with Foles. During those practices, Ertz told me, is when it started to feel like it did when they were in a groove offensively with Wentz. When that feeling came, he knew they were on to something.

Foles finished the Atlanta game 23 of 30 for 246 yards and, most importantly, zero turnovers. The second-half rhythm he found resembles what the Eagles expect from him in the NFC title match -- not the quarterback who went 23 of 49 for 202 yards with one TD and two picks in his final five quarters of the regular season.

Aside from the chemistry that was built over those two weeks, I was also told there was a practice where Foles didn't throw a single incomplete pass. Also during those weeks, Pederson and Co. went back into the archives and looked for what made Foles successful earlier in his career. They looked at plays and schemes in 2013, when Foles played for former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. They brought in more RPOs (run-pass options) and created an offense that had time to be built to cater to his strengths.

"If you're around Nick, you know Nick is a great basketball player," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said this week of Foles, who was recruited to play Division I basketball. "He's a point guard. If he was playing basketball on the street, he's going to wheel and deal the ball. He's the guy out there. He can throw it behind his back with accuracy. He can give you the no-look pass. He can be looking one way and hit a guy. He has that knack and feel, and that's a little bit of the RPO game. I think he's very comfortable with that."

It's not surprising the Eagles went full-speed and in pads again Wednesday, just as they did each of the last two weeks. Another practice for Foles and another week for Pederson, to build on the foundation they've created.

Now they just need the great basketball player to be a great quarterback for two more games.


NFL: Defenses having their day. For all the focus on the disparity among the four quarterbacks in the conference championship games, at least as important is the fact that all four teams have defenses that were in the top five in scoring defense: the Vikings ranked first in the regular season (15.8 points per game allowed), the Jaguars second (16.8), the Eagles fourth (18.4) and the Patriots fifth (18.5). (The Chargers were third.) That is the first time since the 1970 merger that all four teams in the conference championship games finished in the top five in scoring defense.

And to completely undermine the emphasis on offense and scoring, three of the last four Super Bowl champions have either been No. 1 in scoring or total defense. Tom Brady, who led the NFL in passing this season (286.1 passing yards per game) will face the Jaguars, which boasts the league's best pass defense (169.9 yards per game), marking the fourth playoff game under the current postseason format when the NFL leader in passing yards faced the top pass defense. The defense has won every time.

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ATLANTA FALCONS: In defense of Sark. In Steve Sarkisian's first year replacing Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator, the Falcons' production dipped, with Atlanta putting up 51 fewer yards and 11.4 fewer points per game than it did under Shanahan in 2016. After the team was eliminated Saturday in a loss to the Eagles that included a failed attempt to convert on fourth-and-goal from the Philadelphia 2-yard line, Falcons receiver Julio Jones offered a supportive take on Sarkisian's initial tour of duty in Atlanta.

"It was Sark's first year with us, and it was great, a great experience," Jones said. "We just got to keep building off of it. At the end of the day, him learning us, us learning him, what we need to look for, things like that ... I mean, it's just all of us. It never was on just Sark ... We're family here, we're going to fight for each other, gonna play for each other, and that's the thing. We know in-house that's what we're going to do, and that's the only thing we can do to move forward."

Jones explained that the fourth-down play, on which QB Matt Ryan rolled out of the pocket and heaved a ball into the end zone that the covered Jones could not come down with, was "just a sprint ... to take advantage of the one-on-one down there." Jones added: "At the end of the day, I can make those plays."

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JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Marrone set the tone. One of the catchy narratives about Jacksonville's AFC Championship Game matchup with the Patriots centers on the impact former Giants coach Tom Coughlin has had as the Jags' top football man. As the executive vice president of football operations, Coughlin has the final say on what happens with the roster and other football-related decisions. The fact that Coughlin's Giants defeated Bill Belichick and the Patriotstwice in the Super Bowl is some added hot sauce to where things stand now with the Jags.

However, I spoke with someone in the organization who made it clear that coach Doug Marrone has been the real influencer in terms of the Jags' emergence. Marrone is the coach, the on-field decision maker, the teacher and the one with the direct contact with the players. The former Bills coach, according to a player, set the tone last season when he took over for fired Jags coach Gus Bradley on an interim basis, in terms of accountability and professionalism.

Marrone admits that he works in concert with Coughlin, and that the two are in lockstep with the philosophy and blueprint of what they have built and will build.

"Coach, we work together all the time on how to win," Marrone said.

Smith savoring Cinderella role. Linebacker Telvin Smith is quickly emerging as one of the best, most honest and entertaining interviews in the NFL.

The outspoken Smith said he isn't so much a master motivator, but "I would call myself an enlightenment speaker, because if you need to be motivated, then we lost already."

On whether he's felt a nationwide groundswell of support for the Jags to knock off the Patriots: "Definitely. It's crazy, because we're kind of like that Cinderella underdog story. A lot of people just like to see you win. We understand that as soon as we lost a game or something, we see what can happen. Literally, the last two weeks of the regular season, everybody thought it was over. We still standing."

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MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Grinders' mentality. If there's one thing that connects Vikings quarterback Case Keenum and wide receiver Adam Thielen, it's that they've both earned everything they've gotten in the NFL. They were undrafted -- Keenum started his career with the Houston Texans in 2012 while Thielen joined the Vikings in 2013 -- and they both represent the spirit of a team that doesn't wilt in tough times. As Minnesota proved in its miraculous, last-second win over New Orleans in the Divisional Round, there's no quit in this bunch. That's also true of two of the Vikes' biggest stars.

"You take your experiences through life and you learn from them and try to apply that every day," Thielen said. "And I think when times are tough in a game, and it feels like you're not moving the ball or you're not getting open, you remember your journey. [You remember] you have to grind through. So what's 60 minutes of football? That's nothing compared to what you've been through, as far as your journey."

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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Blitzer beware. The Eagles' defense is one of the NFL's best at putting heat on opposing quarterbacks with a four-man rush, generating pressure on 38.1 percent of such rushes this season (second in the league), according to Pro Football Focus.

But one NFC personnel executive who has studied the Eagles closely told me to keep in mind defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's aggressive personality when sizing up Sunday's NFC title tilt against the Vikings.

"You know he's going to shoot his gun probably five, six times where he's going to come with an all-out blitz," the executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons. "That's the way I look at it from the Vikings' standpoint -- it's staying patient, and Schwartz can't stay patient. He's going to try to force something, and then you've got your shots."

While the Eagles' blitz rate is below the league average, Schwartz likes to bring the house when he does. The Eagles have sent six or more rushers on 9.4 percent of plays this season, third-most in the NFL. That number spikes to 24.6 percent in third-and-medium situations (6-9 yards to go), albeit on a relatively small number of plays.

Vikings quarterback Case Keenum struggled when the Saints put pressure on him last week, completing just three of his 11 passes with an interception. But he'd been much better over the course of the season. And when opponents send six or more rushers at him, Keenum is a highly efficient 18-of-26 passing -- with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions.

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