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.”