NFC championship game: Why Vikings match up so well with Eagles

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The NFC championship should be a close game between two dominant defenses. Taking a closer look at the matchup, here is why the Vikings might have a slight edge over the Eagles on Sunday.

NFC championship game: Why Vikings match up so well with Eagles

The NFC championship should be a close game between two dominant defenses. Taking a closer look at the matchup, here is why the Vikings might have a slight edge over the Eagles on Sunday.

The No. 1 seed Eagles (14-3) and No. 2 seed Vikings (14-3) have been working toward their matchup in Sunday's NFC championship game all season. Despite the attention they're getting for arriving with Nick Foles and Case Keenum as their quarterbacks, the teams have won big because of the basics.

The Eagles and Vikings ranked 1-2 in run defense during the regular season. The Vikings were No. 1 in both total and scoring defense; the Eagles were No. 4. Offensively, the Eagles had the No. 3 rushing offense, while the Vikings ranked No. 7.

That means, down to the QBs, everything is pretty even with a trip to Super Bowl LII on the line. Will the Vikings "bring it home" as 3 1/2-point favorites, or will the Eagles hold serve at home for a second consecutive week?

Here's a breakdown of how the teams stack up against each other.

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Picks, predictions, odds for Vikings vs. Eagles

When Eagles have the ball

Running game

The Eagles' rushing attack will try to fare better than the Saints' vaunted one, which was held to 80 yards on 24 carries against the Vikings in the divisional round. They're better off sticking with their base one-back, three-wide receiver, one-tight end set instead of trying two-tight to run the ball. When the Vikings go into nickel to counter, they take out a pretty good run defender in weakside linebacker Ben Gedeon.

Philadelphia also needs to stick more with Jay Ajayi, who got only 15 carries in relation to nine for LeGarrette Blount against Atlanta. Ajayi is the more effective back, inside and outside. Blount will be stuffed even worse against a Vikings front that can swarm his deliberate running style. Contrary to popular belief, Ajayi is better built than Blount to get the tough yards between the tackles when not much is there.


It's a no-brainer for the Eagles to run more to the right behind center Jason Kelce, guard Brandon Brooks and tackle Lane Johnson. That also means going away from Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph, where Brooks can dominate Tom Johnson and Lane Johnson can get the better of Danielle Hunter.

That two-tiered personnel plan will give the Eagles the best chance to have viability on the ground. But it will have limited success unless Foles can open up the passing game.

Passing game

Foles still needs to get the ball out quickly to stay in rhythm within coach Doug Pederson's West Coast offense. But the speed and closing ability of Vikings' linebackers and safeties means he needs to execute on some intermediate-to-deep passes downfield, too. Speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith will be covered well outside and is limited as a pure vertical threat. Tight end Zach Ertz also faces the team that was the best at covering his position this season.

So even with top wide receiver Alshon Jeffery likely shadowed by Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Foles can't be afraid to go there. Jeffery (6-3, 218 pounds) has the size, speed and leaping ability to beat Rhodes (6-1, 218 pounds) on occasion in what should be a fun battle to watch. The chemistry between the two hasn't been great, but the QB needs to target the WR more often after Jeffery caught four of his five targets for 61 yards against the Falcons.


Foles hasn't been called upon much to break out of his comfort zone, but he has to do so Sunday. He has to use his mobility to buy time and let the longer routes develop. He also needs to throw more often to his breakout playmaker in the slot, who also has the Eagles' best matchup.

Eagles' best matchup

WR Nelson Agholor vs. Vikings CB Terence Newman: Agholor was a big-play and red-zone scoring machine for Carson Wentz. But after one good first game with Foles against the Giants, he's been a non-factor, save for his inside rushing play against the Falcons.

Despite a great matchup in the divisional round, Agholor got only three targets — catching them all for 21 yards. Agholor, 24, has speed, quickness and youth advantages over Newman, 39. They are similar in size, but Agholor is a little bigger. The Eagles will not win unless Agholor is involved a lot more all over the field in the passing game.

Eagles' worst matchup

LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Vikings DE Everson Griffen: The Eagles haven't been haunted much by the loss of injured left tackle Jason Peters. In their most important game of the season, though, they are likely to feel Peters' absence over and over again.

Griffen is coming off a monster season with 13 sacks, and kept it going with a takedown of Drew Brees last week. Vaitai will be a turnstile and might force the Eagles to bring in tight end Brent Celek more at the cost of taking Agholor out of the game.

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Eagles' offensive X-factor

RB Corey Clement: The Vikings shut down Mark Ingram easily last week, but they had trouble at times with Alvin Kamara, especially in the passing game. Clement isn't the talent Kamara is, of course, but he was busy as a receiver against the Falcons, catching all five targets for 31 yards.

Clement, like Agholor, provides an extra speed and quickness element in the red zone. He needs to get his chances to see what he can do in the open field.

Vikings' defensive X-factor

CB Trae Waynes: Once much maligned as the corner opposite Rhodes, Waynes has come into his own to be more of an asset than a liability. Because of Rhodes on Jeffery and the possibility of the Eagles needing to go more two-tight end, they are bound to test Waynes against Smith more than a few times, even if they shouldn't.

In that case, Waynes will be set up to make a game-changing interception.


When Vikings have the ball

Running game

The Vikings had flashes of success with Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon early against the Saints, as both scored touchdowns. But their overall ineffectiveness (29 carries, 95 yards) almost cost them late as the offense went into a shell with a big lead.

The Vikings' rushing attack is bound to face tough sledding against a better front seven Sunday. With an offensive line in flux and facing some difficult assignments against the Eagles' defensive line, the Vikings need some blocking support. They're better off going two-tight end over two-back, because second tight end David Morgan is a far better blocker than fullback C.J. Ham.

The Vikings need to stick with the run to open up downfield shots in the passing game, but they need to do it the right way, without an overcommitment. The challenge of striking a delicate balance falls on offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.

Passing game

The Vikings like to be aggressive with Keenum, which is the best way to attack the Eagles, anyway. Wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs were spectacular all season, and they kept it up against the Saints, down to the last miracle play. Tight end Kyle Rudolph wasn't a big factor in the divisional round, but big, athletic types like him have given the Eagles fits in coverage. Keenum has been in the zone spreading the ball to this top three targets, and Shurmur uses them well based on situation.

Thielen excels in the slot, but if the Vikings are going two-tight to run the ball, he has a better matchup outside against cornerback Ronald Darby. When the Vikings spread the field against the Saints, Jarius Wright resurfaced as a key No. 3 wideout. He gives them versatility in how they can line up Thielen from formation to formation.

Shurmur likely is getting the Giants' head-coaching job in part because of how good he is at deploying varied personnel. Look for him to also get the backs involved in the passing game to test the Eagles' linebackers in coverage.

Vikings' best matchup

WR Stefon Diggs vs. Eagles CB Jalen Mills: Diggs isn't done exploding after that 61-yard prayer that allowed the Vikings to advance to the championship game. Mills can't stay with Diggs and his game-breaking ability.

They are both listed as 6-0, 191 pounds, so they will see eye-to-eye, but Diggs will be hard to stop whether he's streaking downfield or setting up Mills for a double move. Diggs can easily match or surpass his production against the Saints to take over the game.


Vikings' worst matchup

RT Rashod Hill vs. Eagles DE Brandon Graham: The Vikings had to move Mike Remmers to left guard because of a season-ending injury to Nick Easton, which has pressed Hill into duty at Remmers' regular spot at right tackle. It's been an up-and-down year for the Vikings' revamped line overall, but Hill struggled mightily against the Saints' Cameron Jordan last week.

He likely won't get too much help in passing situations, because the Vikings' best lineman, right guard Joe Berger, will be busy with Fletcher Cox, and Rudolph will be needed to run routes. On running plays, Rudolph can help, but Hill will likely prompt the Vikings to run left more often behind Remmers, left tackle Riley Reiff and center Pat Elflein.

Vikings' offensive X-factor

RB Jerick McKinnon: The Eagles have had trouble covering speedy backs of McKinnon's ilk this season. Last week, the Falcons didn't use Tevin Coleman nearly as much as they should have in a receiving capacity. McKinnon has had a couple huge games as an outlet receiver for Keenum. He's a mismatch in open field to whom the Vikings need to throw at least a half-dozen times.

Eagles' defensive X-factor

DE Chris Long: He's trying to get back to another Super Bowl after the experience of winning it all with the Patriots last season. He'll have his chances for sacks against Hill, too, in obvious passing situations when the Eagles move Graham inside to tackle. Long has played well in a limited role, and his motor and motivation as a leader can lift another team into the big game.

MORE: AFC championship matchup breakdown

MORE: Keenum vs. Foles for NFC title provides reminder of best path to Super Bowl

Prediction

The defenses will make things tough on both offenses, but it's easier to trust Keenum and what's around him than Foles. The Vikings, fresh off a miracle, will be determined not to miss their date with destiny, flying to the ball and making the bigger plays on both sides. Vikings 19, Eagles 16

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