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Matchups To Watch On Championship Sunday

Posted Jan 21, 2018

Lincoln Financial Field is quiet as I type these words at 10 a.m. Only some television people, doing their standups from the sidelines, along with stadium employees, are in the house. The line of cars backed up ready to pull into the parking lots and tailgate is lengthy. The city is ready for a great Eagles football day ...

Lincoln Financial Field is quiet as I type these words at 10 a.m. Only some television people, doing their standups from the sidelines, along with stadium employees, are in the house. The line of cars backed up ready to pull into the parking lots and tailgate is lengthy. The city is ready for a great Eagles football day.

This is the time to let it all hang out – for the fans and for the football team. It has been one of head coach Doug Pederson’s season-long messages, emphasized during these playoff weeks: Let ‘er rip. And so it’s time for the Eagles to do exactly that.

How do they beat the Minnesota Vikings today and advance to Super Bowl LII? They play a better football game today. They play a complete game. They minimize mistakes. They exercise extreme ball security. They play smart, physical, passionate football.

And they win.

Here are some key matchups to watch tonight when the Eagles and Vikings kick off and play for the right to represent the National Football Conference in two weeks in the Super Bowl.

Eagles LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Vikings DE Everson Griffen

This is a huge one-on-one matchup, with Griffen having the best season of his NFL career (13 quarterback sacks) as a disruptive, game-wrecking defensive end. Vaitai has played well this season and is probably held to a different standard given that he is replacing Jason Peters. In Griffen, Vaitai has a relentless veteran who has a blend of speed and power and a ton of experience. He’s a crafty player who has been named to three straight Pro Bowls. Griffen has terrific burst and can bully inside. Vaitai, who is likely to be given some help, could turn this game in the Eagles’ favor in a big way with a standout job against Griffen.

Eagles Defensive Line vs. Vikings Offensive Line

Minnesota lost left guard Nick Easton in the Week 16 game against Green Bay and went into last week’s game against New Orleans with a reconfigured offensive line that looks like this: From left to right the Vikings start Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers, Pat Elflein, Joe Berger, and Rashod Hill at right tackle. The Eagles, so strong up front, need to win this matchup convincingly.

The battle of Hill against Brandon Graham, in particular, could cause problems for the Vikings. Graham is such an athlete and so quick off the ball. The noise at Lincoln Financial Field could make it very tough for quarterback Case Keenum here. Fletcher Cox was dominating last week in the win over Atlanta.

Minnesota decided to go with its five best offensive linemen in the playoffs and the group was OK last week. But this is a different challenge and it’s one the Eagles need to maximize. Minnesota lacks chemistry and has not played on the road with this group. With all of this noise, communication is so key and being on the same page is paramount.

Eagles QB Nick Foles vs. Vikings S Harrison Smith

Obviously, Nick Foles has to play a confident game, get the football out quickly, be accurate, and make good decisions. One of his keys will be reading Harrison Smith, the do-everything Vikings safety who is a disruptive force in so many ways. Smith will come down into the box against the run, he will blitz, and he will get his hands on the football in coverage.

Foles got the football out of his hand quickly last week and his short-passing-game approach worked well. But will the Eagles try to get the ball down the field in weather conditions (mid 40s, light winds at kickoff) that will be favorable? How much of the run-pass options (RPOs) will the Eagles use in this game? Will Foles try, maybe just once, to gain some yardage with his legs?

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He’s going to have his eyes on Smith at all times. He’s that good, and is the key to the back end of the Minnesota defense.

And here is the key statistic for Foles and the offense to digest and defeat: Minnesota is historically great on third down, allowing a conversion rate of 25 percent. That’s ridiculously good. So how Foles handles first and second downs is critical, and if the Eagles are converting on third down, the offense is going to have great success.

Eagles DC Jim Schwartz vs. Vikings QB Case Keenum

The Eagles have been so good at home on defense without employing many exotic blitzes, but you saw how effective the blitz from safety Rodney McLeod was last week when he sacked quarterback Matt Ryan to end the third quarter. The Eagles have to get Case Keenum out of his comfort zone. He’s got some legitimate weapons in the passing game and he uses his backs well in the screen game. The Eagles want to bring pressure up the middle and get in Keenum’s face and force mistakes and take the football away.

Schwartz has dialed up all the right calls in the late-season home stretch. That must continue tonight.

Eagles RG Brandon Brooks and RT Lane Johnson vs. Vikings D

Can the Eagles run the football on Minnesota? You’d like to think so, and maybe the offense can run through Brooks and Johnson, the Pro Bowl right side of the offensive line. It wouldn’t be a shocker to see the Eagles come out trying to throw the football, but they know they’ve got to get the running game in gear. The grass at Lincoln Financial Field is new from end zone to end zone and between the numbers with the sod job earlier in the week and it looks terrific. It will play well. Should be a fast field.

Do the Eagles want to play smash-mouth football against the Vikings? They’ve got to stay ahead of the chains and not put themselves in third-and-long situations. Running the football is critical. Running behind Johnson and Brooks is a very viable option.

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