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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. 

How Eagles could shut down Vikings' receiving duo

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How Eagles could shut down Vikings' receiving duo

When you think about the best wide receivers in the NFL today, names like Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and DeAndre Hopkins come to mind and rightfully so, but the Minnesota Vikings have a pair of wideouts who have given opposing secondaries fits.

This season, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have been the perfect complement to each other. Thielen finished the regular season with 91 receptions (eighth-best in the league), 1276 yards (fifth-best) and his 20 catches for 20 or more yards tied for fifth-best overall. As for Diggs, he finished with 64 receptions for 849 yards.

Together, Thielen and Diggs accounted for 54 percent of the Vikings' receiving yards this season. They also combined for 12 touchdowns. In the Vikes' miraculous playoff win over the New Orleans Saints, they accounted for 66 percent of the passing game. They have been the safety valves for Case Keenum all season long.

Minnesota offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has the rare luxury of lining up either one of them on the inside or outside on any given play. Both are excellent route runners — whether it's doing deep or intermediate routes or crossing routes, and both are excellent blockers.

So how should Jim Schwartz defend against these two? Some believe help over the top on Thielen and playing single coverage on Diggs is the way to go. We may see that concept occasionally in the NFC Championship Game but I have a feeling Schwartz will come up with some variation we have not seen before. The Eagles are not going to completely shut these two down, but their damage can be minimized. Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and the other DBs will put in a full day’s work shadowing these two.

Monday Night Football: Vikings cruise, Broncos survive on MNF

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Monday Night Football: Vikings cruise, Broncos survive on MNF

MINNEAPOLIS -- Sam Bradford started his second season with Minnesota in style, passing for 346 yards and three touchdowns to help the Vikings beat New Orleans 29-19 on Monday night and spoil Adrian Peterson's first game with the Saints.

Stefon Diggs had seven receptions for 93 yards, two for scores, and Adam Thielen racked up 157 yards on nine catches as Bradford carved up a Saints defense that looked again like one of the worst in the league despite a major renovation. Rookie Dalvin Cook rushed for 127 yards in the formal takeover from Peterson.

Peterson was an afterthought once the Saints fell behind. Drew Brees was quiet, too, with 291 yards on 27-for-37 passing padded by the late push to catch up. Coby Fleener caught the only touchdown toss, after the 2-minute warning. Will Lutz made four field goals, three under 25 yards.

Brees and Bradford are both in the final year of their contracts, with the same agent, Tom Condon, who is sure to cash in on both clients. Brees has by far the better resume, nine seasons further into his career, but Bradford stole the show on this prime-time stage.

Behind mostly clean pockets created by a remade offensive line, Bradford completed 27 of 32 passes without a turnover. With three rookies and three free agents in the starting lineup, the Saints tried hard to better a defense that has held Brees and company back since the Super Bowl title eight years ago. The first performance left a lot to be desired, with Diggs and Thielen consistently finding favorable matchups underneath.

There were three unnecessary roughness calls in the first half by the Saints. Two of the personal fouls aided a drive that ended with one of three field goals by Kai Forbath, who missed one extra point. The other 15-yarder was on safety Kenny Vaccaro for head-hunting Diggs during an acrobatic catch in the closing seconds of the first half. Diggs came right back with another highlight-reel grab to give the Vikings a 16-6 lead at the break.

Cameron Jordan and A.J. Klein each had their hands on a tipped pass in the end zone that fluttered off Cook's hands, missing a critical opportunity to thwart that drive and keep the deficit at four points (see full recap).

Broncos hold off Chargers’ late rally with FG block
DENVER -- Shelby Harris got a hand on Younghoe Koo's 44-yard field goal attempt with a second left, and the Broncos began the Vance Joseph era with a 24-21 win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday night.

Moments earlier, Koo had nailed the kick, but Joseph called a timeout to ice the kicker.

On the re-do, Harris -- who made the team because of a rash of injuries along the D-line -- sliced through and got his right hand on the kick.

It was reminiscent of last year's opener, when the Broncos escaped with a 21-20 win over the Carolina Panthers when Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal with 4 seconds left.

Denver took a 24-7 lead into the fourth quarter but had two turnovers that were converted into touchdowns, a missed field goal and a punt.

Before those fourth-quarter foibles, Trevor Siemian threw two TD passes to Bennie Fowler and ran for another score.

The Broncos held Philip Rivers to 115 yards passing through three quarters but let him engineer a comeback when Siemian threw an interception and Jamaal Charles fumbled on plays that were upheld despite video evidence that had the crowd of 76,324 convinced they should have been overturned (see full recap).