LeGarrette Blount

5 key Eagles matchups vs. Vikings

5 key Eagles matchups vs. Vikings

The Eagles are just one game away from heading back to the Super Bowl. 

There's just one team standing in their way: the second-seeded Vikings. 

The Vikings probably feel pretty lucky to be in the NFC Championship Game after it took a miracle on the last play to get past the Saints, but they're not just one win from the Super Bowl — they're one win from playing a Super Bowl in their own stadium. It's hard to imagine a team needing any more incentive to get to the biggest stage in the world, but the chance to play at home could be it. 

The biggest story on the Vikings is Case Keenum, who came in as the backup and has played out of his mind all season. Everyone has waited for him to come back to Earth and it hasn't happened yet. The Eagles will need to keep him in check, but there are other matchups that might loom even larger.

Here's a look at five of them: 

Alshon Jeffery vs. Xavier Rhodes
Jeffery didn't have a catch in the divisional round game until the final drive of the second quarter, but it was a huge 15-yard catch that put the Eagles into field goal range. He then heated up in his first-ever playoff game and finished with four catches for 61 yards to lead the Eagles in receiving. Jeffery hasn't been the volume receiver many fans probably hoped for when he signed, but he is clearly their best receiver and has made some big plays this season. 

Jeffery is certainly familiar with the Vikings. Because of his time in Chicago, Jeffery has faced them nine times in his career. He has 45 catches for 685 yards and seven touchdowns against them. He has more touchdown catches against them than any other team. Three of his seven best career games have come against the Vikings. 

But Rhodes is pretty damn good. He's arguably the best cornerback in the NFL and has been a shutdown guy all year. 

These two have had their battles. In eight games against each other, Jeffery has been targeted 32 times, according to ProFootballFocus. He has 19 catches for 235 yards and a touchdown. But Rhodes has won his battles too; he has one pass defensed and two interceptions while covering Jeffery. 

"We had some good battles," Jeffery said. "He's a great competitor. We like to compete against one other. Strong, physical. I look forward to the battle." 

Jerick McKinnon vs. Eagles' linebackers
The Eagles have the best run defense in the NFL, so maybe the key to this game isn't stopping Latavius Murray, the Vikings' best running back. The bigger test will probably be against McKinnon, who is a receiving threat out of the backfield. 

Sure, the Eagles lucked out by not having to worry about the Saints' Alvin Kamara, but McKinnon can be a handful as a receiver too. This season he caught 51 passes for 421 yards and two touchdowns. Though, he caught just three passes for six yards against the Saints last week. 

At times, the Eagles have struggled to cover running backs. This will fall on all their linebackers, but Mychal Kendricks is the one to keep an eye on. Kendricks has great straight-line speed, but him covering running backs 1-on-1 will always be a mismatch. He struggles with their lateral play. 

Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Everson Griffen 
Unlike many of the top pass-rushers in the NFL, Griffen doesn't primarily rush against the right tackle. That has been an advantage for the Eagles throughout most of this season because right tackle is where All-Pro Lane Johnson resides. It'll be up to "Big V" to slow down Griffen, who had 13 sacks this season. 

Over the last four seasons, Griffen has 43½ sacks. Over the past four seasons, just three players (Von Miller — 48.5, Ryan Kerrigan — 47, Chandler Jones — 46.5) have more sacks than Griffen. Griffen had one sack against the Saints in the divisional round, while Vaitai played well against the Falcons. 

"We've faced some tremendous defensive ends all season long and this will be [Vaitai's] greatest challenge in this game," Doug Pederson said. "But I have a lot of confidence in V and what he's done this season and he'll get a good week of preparation and be ready to go."

Joe Berger vs. Fletcher Cox
Cox had a monster game against the Falcons after putting some extra pressure on himself heading into that one. He told NBC Sports Philadelphia that as the highest-paid unit on the team, the defensive line needed to step up. The group did and Cox was at the forefront of that. He has the ability to wreck games and the Eagles are going to need another elite performance from him on Sunday night. 

This season, Berger gave up three sacks, two QB hits and 18 QB hurries, according to ProFootballFocus, so Cox will have some opportunity to get after Keenum. But Cox also needs to continue to be stout in his run defense. 

Pederson said Cox was a "man on a mission" against the Falcons. The Eagles need him to bring it again. 

Jay Ajayi vs. Vikings' run defense
Ajayi finished the game against the Falcons with 98 yards from scrimmage, but that's actually lower than what he probably should have had. After one quarter, Ajayi had already rushed for 49 yards on seven attempts. The Eagles got away from Ajayi in the second quarter, which Pederson said was just a flow-of-the-game situation, but it would make sense for them to use him against the Vikings on Sunday. 

The problem is that it won't be an easy game for Ajayi. While the Eagles had the best rushing defense in the NFL this season — giving up 79.2 yards per game — the Vikings weren't far behind at 83.6. They held the Saints' two-headed rushing attack of Kamara and Mark Ingram to a combined 68 yards and held the entire Saints team to just 80 yards on the ground. Now, a big part of that was that the Vikings got up early and forced the Saints to pass their way back into the game. But they're still nasty against the run. 

The good news for Ajayi is the way he picked up yards against the Falcons should be at least somewhat sustainable against the Vikings or any team. Of his 54 rushing yards, 39 came after contact, according to ProFootballFocus. Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount were excellent after contact this season. Ajayi averaged 2.8 yards after contact per attempt, while LeGarrette Blount averaged 3.6, the third-best average in the NFL. 

Even in playoffs, Eagles stay true to RB rotation

USA Today Images

Even in playoffs, Eagles stay true to RB rotation

For a while Saturday, it looked like the Eagles were really going to ride the JayTrain to a win over the Falcons. 

In the end, though, they stayed true to their running-back-by-committee approach. 

Ajayi ended up leading the backs in snaps — not a surprise — but not by a wide margin. He played 29 of 67 offensive snaps (43 percent). LeGarrette Blount played 20 (30 percent), Corey Clement played 16 (24 percent) and Kenjon Barner played one. 

Ajayi carried the ball 15 times (which tied his high from the regular season with the Eagles) for 54 yards, but that came after he had seven carries for 49 yards in the first quarter. It seemed like in the second quarter the Eagles went away from Ajayi; Doug Pederson said after the game it was just lack of opportunity when they didn't have the ball for long. 

Blount had nine carries for 19 yards. Clement had one carry for five yards but also had five catches for 31. 

The only member of the offensive line who didn't play all 67 snaps was Stefen Wisniewski. He played 66 because he lost his shoe on one play. 

Zach Ertz (59 snaps) and Alshon Jeffery (56 snaps) played most of the game, while Nelson Agholor played nearly as much (51 snaps). 

On defense, Malcolm Jenkins, Jalen Mills, Rodney McLeod and Nigel Bradham didn't leave the field, playing all 63 snaps. 

The Eagles' well-rested defensive line showed up Saturday. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham each played 90 percent of the snaps (57 snaps), well above their season averages. 

Meanwhile, rookie Derek Barnett played just 16 snaps. It was pretty clear the Eagles wanted to ride their veteran playmakers in the biggest game of the year. It was a little surprising that Tim Jernigan played just three more snaps than Beau Allen (29 to 26). 

Dannell Ellerbe played 23 snaps, which means the Eagles were in their base defense for a good portion of the game. 

Here's a full look at snap counts from the Eagles' 15-10 win Saturday: 

Brandon Brooks - 67 snaps (100 percent)
Lane Johnson - 67 (100)
Halapoulivaati Vaitai - 67 (100)
Jason Kelce - 67 (100)
Nick Foles - 67 (100)
Stefen Wisniewski - 66 (99)
Zach Ertz - 59 (88)
Alshon Jeffery - 56 (84)
Nelson Agholor - 51 (76)
Torrey Smith - 42 (63)
Jay AJayi - 29 (43)
Brent Celek - 26 (39)
LeGarrette Blount - 20 (30)
Corey Clement - 16 (24)
Mack Hollins - 16 (24)
Trey Burton - 14 (21)
Isaac Seumalo - 5 (7)
Kenjon Barner - 1 (1)
Chance Warmack - 1 (1)

Malcolm Jenkins - 63 (100)
Rodney McLeod - 63 (100)
Nigel Bradham - 63 (100)
Jalen Mills - 63 (100)
Ronald Darby - 61 (97)
Brandon Graham - 57 (90)
Fletcher Cox - 57 (90)
Vinny Curry - 47 (75)
Mychal Kendricks - 43 (68)
Patrick Robinson - 36 (57)
Tim Jernigan - 29 (46)
Beau Allen - 26 (41)
Corey Graham - 24 (38)
Dannell Ellerbe - 23 (37)
Chris Long - 20 (32)
Derek Barnett - 16 (25)
Najee Goode - 2 (3)

Foles’ A-game leads Eagles to NFC title game

Foles’ A-game leads Eagles to NFC title game

Grading the Eagles' 15-10 win Saturday over the Atlanta Falcons at Lincoln Financial Field (see breakdown):

Nick Foles: 23/30, 246 YDS

The first half was ugly, bordering on abysmal. Foles struggled mightily while throwing into a strong headwind in the first quarter, then overthrew everybody in the second. He botched two handoffs and took a bad sack. One errant pass went right to a Falcons defensive back, was deflected in the air and miraculously caught by Torrey Smith.

For some reason, Foles' luck seemed to change from there. He found Alshon Jeffery for a 15-yard completion to set up a field goal at the end of the first half and looked like an entirely different quarterback in the second half. The sixth-year veteran completed 12 of 15 passes for 145 yards in quarters three and four while leading the Eagles on a pair of long drives for field goals (see Roob's observations). He was confident and poised in the pocket, even when things were going wrong. In short, Foles did just about all anybody could've asked for.

Grade: A-

Jay Ajayi: 15 ATT, 54 YDS, 1 FL

Ajayi was running like a man possessed in the first quarter, carrying seven times for 49 yards with a nine-yard reception. Only a costly turnover-marred an otherwise explosive start. The Falcons clamped down on the ground attack from there. Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount were met in the backfield on nearly every handoff, fighting for every inch. Blount managed to convert a one-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and Ajayi ripped off a 32-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter for good measure. Corey Clement added four receptions for 29 yards as well. Fumble aside, solid work from the Eagles' three-headed monster.

Grade: B

Alshon Jeffery: 5 TAR, 4 REC, 61 YDS

Jeffery wasn't targeted until the closing moments of the second quarter but came up huge on a 15-yard catch with one second remaining in the half. He caught three more passes on the Eagles' opening possession in the second half to set up another three points. Smith pitched in three receptions for 39 yards. However, it was Nelson Agholor who came up with one of the biggest plays of the game — a 21-yard rush to set up the offense's only touchdown. Agholor finished with three receptions for 24 yards, and Mack Hollins got involved with a nine-yard grab. Slow start for the group as a whole, but once the targets finally came, they produced.

Grade: B+

Zach Ertz: 5 TAR, 3 REC, 32 YDS

Not nearly as impactful as one might have imagined against the Falcons' Cover-3 scheme, but Ertz made some plays that kept the chains moving. The Pro Bowler gave it his all when called upon to block as well. Brent Celek made a postseason appearance with a six-yard catch. The unit's day would've looked a lot better had Foles not overthrown Trey Burton for a potentially huge gain, but it was enough.

Grade: B

The Eagles' production on the ground doesn't look great. Ajayi and Blount combined to carry 24 times for 73 yards — a meager 3.0 yards per carry average. Let's assume the Falcons were selling out to stop the ground attack, and instead look at what the O-line did well. The screen game was excellent, and most importantly, Foles had outstanding protection. The quarterback was sacked just the one time and took only four hits total on over 30 dropbacks. Foles routinely had time to scan the field and room to step up in the pocket. The superb blocking had everything to do with the backup's success.

Grade: A

Fletcher Cox: 7 TKL, 2 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 QBH

Cox was dominant from the outset, getting constant penetration up the middle of the Falcons' offense. As the game wore on, the rest of the unit stepped up, and the pass rush intensified. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry each had two quarterback hits, while Chris Long, Derek Barnett and Beau Allen each registered one. Graham added a tackle for loss, though the Eagles had their share of issues against the run. The defensive ends consistently failed to set the edge, allowing Falcons ball carriers to rush for 86 yards on 20 carries — a 4.3 average. It wasn't a fatal flaw, but the D-line was getting gashed on off-tackle runs in particular.

Grade: B

Nigel Bradham: 4 TKL, 2 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 PD

Like many Eagles players, Bradham got off to a bit of an up-and-down start, taking some bad angles to ball carriers, missing tackles and getting himself out of position. However, Bradham managed to turn his performance around faster than some of his teammates. He broke up a pass on the Falcons' opening possession, forcing a field goal try, while a second-half sack proved to be a drive killer as well. Mychal Kendricks also finished with four tackles and nearly came up with an interception, while Dannell Ellerbe tacked on two tackles.

Grade: B+

Malcolm Jenkins: 8 TKL, 1 TFL

The Falcons averaged 5.8 yards per pass, which should speak volumes about the play in the secondary. Rodney McLeod had a sack, Ronald Darby had a tackle for loss, and Jalen Mills broke up two passes, both of which would've been touchdowns — including the potential game-winner in the game's final minute. Everything that happened up front with the pass rush was at least partly a result of the coverage forcing the quarterback to hold on the ball in the first place. Awesome job.

Grade: A

Jake Elliott: 0/1 XP, 3/3 FG

Early miscues were costly. Multiple Eagles players touched a short punt that had died in the wind, resulting in a turnover and a quick Falcons touchdown. That's a completely unforced error, albeit one created by harsh elements. Jake Elliott also missed an extra point, though he made field goals of 53, 37 and 21 yards. Even Donnie Jones wasn't perfect — two of three punts were downed inside the opponents' 20, but the other went for a touchback.

Grade: B-

Eagles' record: 14-3

The Eagles are going to the NFC Championship. Need we say more?

Grade: A+