Andrew Kulp

Jay Ajayi's ride maybe the wildest of them all

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AP Images

Jay Ajayi's ride maybe the wildest of them all

Less than three months ago, Jay Ajayi was wearing a Dolphins uniform. Now the starting running back for the Eagles, Ajayi is one game away from the Super Bowl.

Ajayi's road to the NFC Championship Game was unusual but he isn't yet ready to reflect on the midseason trade that brought him to this juncture. And he certainly isn't satisfied just to be here.

"I don't want to look back yet because, in my mind, I'm not done, and we're not done," Ajayi said Thursday. "It's about staying on course with what we want to do, which is take care of business this weekend and put ourselves in that Super Bowl and get ready to bring it back to Philly.

"After that, then I can look back and enjoy all the craziness that went on this year and have something to be proud of."

Even before the surprising trade went through, Ajayi was on a unique path. He was born in England and lived overseas until the age of seven. Widely considered a potential first-round talent, the Boise State product fell to the fifth round of the 2015 NFL draft over reports of a chronic knee ailment. Then the Dolphins apparently had their fill of Ajayi after 2½ seasons, sending the Pro Bowl running back to the Eagles amid rumors he had become a malcontent.

Ajayi has already gone through more than most 24-year-olds, even as far as professional athletes are concerned. Though he acknowledged it feels "weird" to suddenly prepare for a conference championship game, he's probably become somewhat accustomed to the extraordinary, too.

"It hasn't really hit we have two games left," Ajayi said. "It still feels like the regular season. We've just been in the routine of everything.

"Just getting ready to play the biggest game of my career so far. It's exciting. I know we're all ready because we're so close, and it would be a shame not to get it done."

It's a tempered enthusiasm, however, as Ajayi is clearly still stewing over a costly fumble in the Eagles' divisional round playoff win over the Falcons.

Since joining the Eagles, Ajayi has been as advertised — a big, bruising ball carrier with the explosion and vision to hit home runs. In nine games, including postseason, he racked up 597 yards from scrimmage on 98 total touches for a 6.1 average.

Ajayi has also fumbled three times — once every 32.7 touches. If he continues to give the ball away against the Vikings and the league's No. 1 defense with the NFC title on the line, the Eagles will not advance.

"Us as a running back room, we know that for us to win this game, we're going to have to make sure we don't have any giveaways, hold on to the ball and run hard," Ajayi said.

Something about Ajayi's demeanor affirms it won't happen again, not in the biggest game of his career.

"They're just another opponent, and they're in the way of what we want to do," Ajayi said.

"It's going to be a physical game. We know it's going to be a dogfight."

Of all players, Big V could be key to Eagles' victory

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AP Images

Of all players, Big V could be key to Eagles' victory

Halapoulivaati Vaitai is already a huge reason why the Eagles are playing for the NFC Championship. Now, he might be the key to reaching the Super Bowl.

The Eagles couldn’t have made it this far without Vaitai, who took over at left tackle way back in Week 7 when Jason Peters was lost for the season. But on Sunday, Peters’ replacement faces one of his stiffest tests to date in Vikings right defensive end Everson Griffen.

“He's a game-wrecker,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of Griffen this week.

Recently named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, Griffen set career highs with 13 sacks in 2017, finishing tied for fourth in the NFL. It was the third time in four seasons the eighth-year veteran went into double digits, and he’s still going strong, getting to the quarterback once more in the Vikings’ divisional round playoff win over the Saints.

Griffen is one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the league. Vaitai was a minimally experienced backup until mid-October. On paper, the matchup looks like a serious concern.

“Fast, strong guy,” Eagles right guard Brandon Brooks said of Griffen. “He’s played in this league for years now, got experience.

“But V is big and strong too. He has not as much experience but got more experience than a lot of younger guys his age with the games he started last year and games he’s playing this year, so I know V is up to the challenge.”

A fifth-round draft pick in 2016, Vaitai has 17 NFL starts under his belt and 11 this season, including playoffs. The results are somewhat mixed, though the Eagles have an 8-2 record since the 24-year-old stepped in at left tackle.

Vaitai hasn’t made anybody forget about Peters — a future Hall of Famer — but the second-year player is holding his own and improving steadily.

“He’s got a lot better, especially from last year to this year,” left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. “His technique has improved greatly. I think his football IQ has gone up. He’s really worked hard to get better every day, and his pass blocking has improved tremendously.”

This week perhaps more than any other, the Eagles can’t afford a liability at the tackle position.

The gravity of the situation is obvious, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Plus, in addition to Griffen, the Vikings boast the league’s No. 1 defense both in scoring and yardage. Points and positive drives will be hard enough to come by for the Eagles without consistent disruption at the line of scrimmage (see story).

Naturally, Pederson plans to provide assistance for Vaitai. However, the Vikings are also known for using exotic double A-gap blitzes up the middle and other overload pressure packages, and the Eagles can’t double-team one guy the entire game.

There will be occasions when Griffen is one-on-one, and it’s on Vaitai to shut him down.

“It's a lot of respect for him,” Pederson said of Griffen. “He can change the ballgame.

“He knows that tight ends are going to help over there, backs are going to help over there, slide protection. It’s not rocket science. But Big V has had a challenge all season. We've faced some tremendous defensive ends all season long, and this will be his greatest challenge in this game. I have a lot of confidence in V and what he's done this season.”

Whether out of comfort or necessity or resignation, at this point, the Eagles seem fine with the idea of Vaitai vs. Griffen. Right tackle Lane Johnson doesn’t see the potential mismatch as a big deal at all.

“We’ll have some chip [protections] and some slams tied in, but other than that though, I think he’ll be alright,” Johnson said. “Just another guy in there.”

Vaitai has often looked like “just another guy” this season, in varying senses of the phrase. He’s experienced his share of struggles, then been able to quietly blend in with a strong offensive line for long periods.

Whichever Vaitai the Eagles get on Sunday could go a long way toward determining the outcome.

Why Eagles aren't fighting for respect against Vikings

Why Eagles aren't fighting for respect against Vikings

The Vikings finished 2017 with the No. 1 defense in the NFL, an achievement that’s correlated with a trip to the Super Bowl in each of the previous four seasons.

But all numbers and history lessons aside, the Eagles only need to be the better team Sunday to advance to the big game.

“We accept the challenge,” Rodney McLeod said Tuesday. “They’re the No. 1 defense statistically maybe, or people think that. We also think we’re the best defense."

The Vikings were dominant by just about every significant measure — second against both the run and pass, third in the red zone and the greatest third-down defense ever. Or at least the greatest third-down defense for as long as the statistic was tracked, since 1991.

“I think they are the best defense we've faced this year,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.

The Eagles are hardly plebeians, finishing the regular season ranked fourth in scoring defense and yards allowed. It was only a week ago they limited the Falcons to 10 points in a divisional round playoff game.

So why does it feel like the unit will have something to prove again in the conference championship Sunday?

“We don’t care,” safety Corey Graham said. “We’re past that. We’re at the point right now, we win a game, you’re in the Super Bowl. If you’re still fighting for respect at this point, it doesn’t really matter.

So the Eagles will not be playing the disrespect card this week, at least not the defense specifically. The unit might hold up its end of the bargain. The real question is how an Eagles offense led by Nick Foles will fare against a strong opponent.

The Vikings have Pro Bowl players on every level of the defense. There’s Everson Griffen, who has 14.0 sacks and counting including playoffs, and Linval Joseph. Anthony Barr possesses the versatility to drop into coverage or attack the line of scrimmage. And Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith headline the league’s stingiest secondary.

“They have a very talented group and a great secondary,” Torrey Smith said. “When you see that, oftentimes there’s great guys up front. You see the big men up front handling their business as well, so as always, we’re going to have our hands full.”

Unlike last week against the Falcons, who use the same Cover-3 concept the majority of the time, the Vikings like to challenge opponents with different looks.

“They mix it up,” Reich said. “The statistics will say it's a little bit more zone, but they have a way of mixing things up, throwing a lot of different variations of even a three-deep zone at you, and then when they play man, they are going to mix in man.”

Though head coach Mike Zimmer is also known for overloading the A-gaps with pressure up the middle, this Vikings defense is so stout, blitzing is not as prevalent.

“I think they are the best defense we've faced this year," Reich said, "and I think one of the reasons why is they can get pressure with four and cover with seven."

In 2016, the Eagles faced a Vikings' defense with nearly identical personnel. The offense generated 13 of the Eagles’ 21 points in the win, driving into the red zone and across the goal line for a touchdown only once.

A lot changed for the Eagles since then too, but the film from the last meeting can still prove useful.

“You always go back and look what they did last year and how you handled it, things you did well, things you didn’t,” Brandon Brooks said. “Then you match that with different personnel they have this year and go from there.

“The biggest thing is that’s why the game is played on Sunday. We’re gonna see.”