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Who's next? 6 things to watch in today's Saints-Vikings game

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Who's next? 6 things to watch in today's Saints-Vikings game

A ticket to the NFC Championship game will be punched and a trip to the Linc to face the top-seeded Eagles will be booked when the Minnesota Vikings host the New Orleans Saints this evening at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

NBC Sports Philadelphia's Derrick Gunn breaks down key points and matchups to watch for as the two teams battle for the right to face the Eagles with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line next Sunday.

• It all begins with the two head coaches. The Saints' Sean Payton and the Vikings' Mike Zimmer are longtime friends, having coached together on the Dallas Cowboys' staff from 2003-05. Payton was the offensive coordinator in Dallas while Zimmer was the defensive coordinator. Both are intense, creative and successful minds and have very similar styles of coaching. The difference: Payton is an offensive mastermind while Zimmer is a defensive guru. Zimmer's defense finished ranked No. 1 overall in the league this season. Payton's offense was No. 2 overall. Let the chess match begin.

• Keep an eye on the matchup between Minnesota all-pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas, in just his second year in the league out of Ohio State, finished sixth in the league in receiving with 1245 yards. Rhodes, Thomas' adversary Sunday, is one of the best cover corners in the game. He's got two picks and 44 total tackles on the season.

• Vikings wideout Adam Thielen finished fifth in the NFL during the regular season with 1276 receiving yards. There should be a really good battle between him and Saints' rookie first-round pick, cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore finished tied for fifth in the league with five interceptions this season.

• This game features three premiere edge-rushers. Minnesota's Everson Griffin and Danielle Hunter teamed up for 20 sacks this season. Griffin finished tied for fourth in the league with 13 sacks, while Hunter supplied seven of his own. The Saints' Cameron Jordan also had 13 sacks this season. Drew Brees and Case Keenum are both pocket passers, but is any of those guys break into the pocket, look out.

• Keep an eye on the battle in the trenches between the Vikings' defensive line and the Saints' offensive line. Minnesota has a fierce pass rush, but New Orleans allowed just 20 sacks in the regular season, second fewest in the entire league.

• Which QB will do the best job of completing plays? Brees and Keenum, the latter of whom is an unlikely MVP candidate, have been two of the best this season at staying upright. Brees has been sacked just 20 times. Keenum has been sacked just 22 times. Both guys have an uncanny ability to keep plays alive and make something out of nothing.

For more analysis on the Eagles and their opponent in next Sunday's NFC Championship Game, tune into tonight's Mission Minneapolis playoff special on NBC Sports Philadelphia following the Saints-Vikings game.

Give Torrey Smith an MVP vote

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Give Torrey Smith an MVP vote

Torrey Smith doesn't get an MVP vote, but if he did, we know where it would go. 

He thinks the honor belongs to Carson Wentz. 

In the Eagles' locker room on Thursday, Smith volunteered his opinion that Wentz should be the 2017 NFL MVP, despite Wentz's missing the final three games of the season after with a torn ACL. 

"Absolutely," Smith said. "And I'm biased too. I'll tell you that, I am biased. I think he still should be, even with the missed games. I mean, what he meant to this team, what he was actually able to do and he missed two games. 

"It's pretty crazy. Because he probably wouldn't have played the last game if he was there. He missed two games. Still was right up at the top of everything else. I think it says a lot about him."

Smith actually brings up a good point. Had Wentz not been injured, he very likely wouldn't have played in the regular-season finale anyway, which means his ACL injury forced him to miss only two games in the regular season instead of three. 

Wentz finished his season with 3,296 passing yards and 33 touchdown passes. Only Russell Wilson threw more touchdown passes (34) and it took him all 16 games. Wentz is just 19th in passing yards but fourth in passer rating (101.9) behind just Alex Smith (104.7), Drew Brees (103.9) and Tom Brady (102.8). 

It seems like Wentz's biggest competition for the MVP might be two-time winner Brady, who had another stellar season. 

So why would Smith take Wentz over Brady? 

"Tom Brady's the G.O.A.T. though. He is the G.O.A.T.," Smith said. "But Carson was able to make plays athletically that Tom can't physically do, even though he's the greatest quarterback ever. Carson plays the game differently and what he's meant to us on third down, when he's scrambling, the crazy plays he's made. It's not like he's Vick or anything, but the way he makes those plays, it was huge for us. 

"At times we were struggling and those plays turn into opening the gates. He's made some amazing plays all year. I don't know, put their highlight tapes together and see what you think."

The Eagles haven't had an MVP since Norm Van Brocklin won it back in 1960, so it's been a pretty long wait. 

This year's MVP award will be announced Feb. 3, the day before the Super Bowl. 

Unfortunately, although Smith thinks Wentz deserves the award, he doesn't think he's going to get it. 

"No. Because he missed a couple games," Smith said, "but I think he's the MVP."

Carson Wentz, Eagles proving better than anyone in red zone

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Carson Wentz, Eagles proving better than anyone in red zone

If the Eagles cross their opponent's 20-yard line there's a good chance they're going to score a touchdown. 

A really good chance. 

In fact, they're better at scoring touchdowns in those situations than any other team in the league. The Eagles have become the best red-zone team in football.

Through 11 games, the Eagles have scored a touchdown on 71.8 percent of their trips into the red zone. The next closest team is Green Bay, which is scoring at a 67.7 percent clip. 

Against the Bears, the Eagles scored on three of their five trips to the red zone but were really better than that. Their fourth trip was ruined when a fumble happened on the snap from the backup center to the backup quarterback. And the final trip into the red zone ended in victory formation as the clock ran out. 

While the Eagles have scored touchdowns on 28 of their 39 trips into the red zone this season, they've been even better in their last six games. Since the Carolina game, the Eagles have scored on 18 of 22 trips to the red zone — an amazing 81 percent. 

"I think for us, it's just the continuity of continuing to rep and to execute the same concepts over and over each week," head coach Doug Pederson said on Monday. "I think it's one of the things that I credit the offensive coaches for is maximizing our personnel down there, creating some matchups. You saw yesterday with Alshon (Jeffery) at the one time on a linebacker, right before the half, and just putting our guys in positions to be successful.

"And then obviously this was — [defensive coordinator Vic Fangio] for the Bears is not a big zero-blitz guy bringing everybody in. He showed that yesterday and we were able to adjust and make some plays down there and score a touchdown to Nelson (Agholor) on one of those.

"So yeah, we just continue to execute our plan, execute our schemes, things we have worked on all offseason, all training camp and continue to get better."

The Eagles spend a good portion of every Friday practice working on situational football, which includes red-zone work. That seems to be paying off. 

The Eagles' improvement in the red zone this season is pretty incredible. Last season, they scored touchdowns on just 49.1 percent of their red-zone trips, so they were toward the bottom of the league. In fact, their 71.8 percent success rate this season is considerably higher than any success rate under Chip Kelly or Andy Reid. The closest mark came in the 2004 Super Bowl season when the Eagles scored on 63.8 percent of their trips to the red zone. They're eight percentage points better so far in 2017!

Part of the reason for this rise in success is pretty simple. It's the same reason Pederson gave a couple weeks ago for his team's success on the road: This Eagles team is just better. They're a better football team.

The other obvious answer is Carson Wentz. 

So much of red-zone success simply boils down to quarterback play and the Eagles have a potential MVP working for them. Pederson admitted a lot of the Eagles' success in the red zone comes "pre-snap" based on what the defense is showing. 

"You get a lot of information pre-snap on any down," Pederson said, "but particularly in the red zone when things become a little tighter, a little faster, lanes are a little narrow, or the ball has to be out a little faster, things like that."

Wentz is responsible for a lot pre-snap, but once the ball is in his hands, he makes things happen, too. He's been dynamic in the red zone this season. His 118.1 passer rating in the red zone is the third highest in the NFL and is actually 14 points higher than his overall passer rating. Just Eli Manning (121.2) and Drew Brees (118.4) have higher red-zone passer ratings. And Wentz has a better red-zone passer rating than Aaron Rodgers (116.2) and Tom Brady (108.3).

Check out Wentz's numbers in the red zone: 31 for 47, 242 yards, 20 TDs, 0 INT

And now Brady's red-zone season stats: 39 for 64, 243 yards, 20 TDs, 0 INT

Yup, the two MVP candidates are pretty close.   

“The biggest thing is the game plan we have coming in each week," Wentz said. "Our coaches do a tremendous job of getting guys in the right positions to make plays. Our balance of being able to run the ball down there and throw the ball has been big for us, too. And then it just comes down to guys making plays. We’re just making more of them right now. The tighter you get to the red zone, the defense has to declare their coverage a little more. In the back of our heads, we have those things we can go to versus different looks. Sometimes you have to change things, and sometimes you just let it roll. Coach called a great game.”

Pederson said that earlier in the season, he thought the Eagles struggled in the "big red-zone area," which is inside the 30. He challenged his offense to get better in those situations. He wanted the Eagles to run the ball better and take care of the football better in the red zone.

It worked. 

"They really have since that point, it was about after Week, maybe 3 or 4, somewhere in there, they have really embraced that," Pederson said. "And again, it comes down to their preparation and the way they practice on Fridays when we do our red zone. Just they don't want to be denied."