Ahead of Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings, the PhiladelphiaEagles.com writers answer your questions below!
Dave Spadaro: My three things to win remain consistent:
• Win the turnover battle. The Eagles were minus two last week and still won the game. That rarely, rarely, rarely happens in the NFL. If the Eagles are minus two again this week, it's going to be very difficult to win this football game.
• Have success in the red zone. The Eagles' offense ranked first in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency in the regular season but went only 1-for-3 last week. Still, they beat Atlanta but only scored 15 points. Minnesota's offense ranked ninth in touchdown efficiency in the red zone in the regular season, and the Vikings ranked third in red zone defense in the season. A touchdown instead of a field goal wins in the playoffs.
• Converting third downs. Minnesota led the NFL in third-down defense, as opponents converted only 25 percent of their attempts. That's a crazy number. The Eagles, obviously, have to keep drives alive.
Fran Duffy: First, I'd have to say it's most important to run the football. It's imperative for the Eagles to stay on schedule offensively and be ahead of the sticks. The Vikings' third-down defense is historically good. You can't get into third-and-8 against them and plan to convert on a consistent basis.
Second, I think they have to pressure Case Keenum and make him feel uncomfortable early in this game, ideally without blitzing. If they blitz, that's great, but I think the front four has to once again dominate the trenches like it did a week ago against Atlanta. Lastly, I'll say protecting Nick Foles is pivotal as well. You have to keep him comfortable in the pocket, and that's done both schematically and with the execution on the field. The Eagles showed last week they don't need him to make five or seven big throws in a game. If he can come through in a couple of clutch spots without turning the ball over, it will be big for this offense. Those would be my three keys to victory.
Chris McPherson: I'll go with three different ones here.
First, the defense must keep Keenum in the pocket. Fletcher Cox compared the Vikings' quarterback to Seattle's Russell Wilson in terms of his elusiveness. Keenum is excellent in his ability to throw on the run. Keenum is listed at 6-1. Force him to work his craft inside the confines of a tight pocket.
Second, beware the toss play. Atlanta had success running on the perimeter last week against the Eagles, and Minnesota's first touchdown against the Saints was on a toss play to Jerick McKinnon. The defensive ends must not lose contain.
Third, win on special teams. The lost possession due to the special teams miscue against Atlanta led to the Falcons' only touchdown. Punt returner Kenjon Barner must field those punts. Bryan Braman made up for his part of the fumble by tipping a punt late in the first half that led to Jake Elliott's 53-yard field goal. Hidden yards are going to be huge in a game where points will likely be at a premium.
Fran Duffy: The Vikings' run game isn't scary going solely off the numbers, but Minnesota will try to run the ball and will stick to it even when there's not much success. I think the Eagles can stop the run in this game, but they have to be careful to stop Murray and Jerick McKinnon through the first three quarters only to give up a huge carry in the fourth quarter to turn the tide. Minnesota knows it needs to run to win this game, and the Vikings use their run game to set up a strong play-action passing game. I expect them to try and stay committed to the run game on Sunday, even against the Eagles' stout front.
Dave Spadaro: You worry about everybody in this game. Murray is a sturdy 6-3, 230-pound running back who runs high. He's a power back. Is he a big worry? Not for a defense that ranked first in the NFL against the run all season. The Eagles are, obviously, great against the run. But Murray brings a lot of power in his runs. He won't take it to the house, but he's a short-yardage threat who moves the chains.
Chris McPherson: I'm more worried about McKinnon for the reason I listed above. He's dangerous out on the perimeter in both the run and the screen games. The Eagles have to make sure he doesn't have a Chris Thompson-like effect on this game. The Eagles' strength is taking away the run. If Murray is able to get going, it will make defending the play-action that much more difficult.
Dave Spadaro: Ertz matches up well against every defense with his route-running ability, his comfort level with quarterback Nick Foles, and his speed. The Eagles may move him around the formation to create some favorable matchups, but there are really aren't any easy one-on-ones against the excellent Vikings secondary.
I think Ertz will be a primary target in the passing game, but more of the short- and mid-range variety. Minnesota knows all about Ertz and will try to limit his freedom. This is going to be a great coaching chess match.
Fran Duffy: Ertz's production will be a factor of the Eagles' success on early downs. From a pure matchup standpoint, I think the battle between Ertz and safety Harrison Smith as well as linebacker Anthony Barr will be fun to watch. But if the Eagles are unable to run the ball and protect Nick Foles it will be hard for anyone, even Ertz, to put up numbers in this game.
Chris McPherson: I think for Ertz to have an impact it will be from a quality over quantity standpoint. I look back to the Carolina game earlier this season where Ertz had two catches, but both went for touchdowns. Last Saturday, Ertz had just three catches in the win over Atlanta, but one of them was a nice grab along the sideline to move the chains during the go-ahead drive in the third quarter. Where Ertz can make a difference is in the red zone where he had 11 catches this season, but eight of them went for touchdowns. He's a very good route-runner with impressive body control. The Vikings' defense is outstanding, but I love how Ertz has embraced the challenge of being a go-to guy in the Eagles' passing game.
Fran Duffy: The Eagles have run with this type of rotation all year, and it's worked extremely well for them thus far. In my eyes, there's no reason to second-guess the usage of the personnel. Ajayi saw a ton of touches early in the game and then came in late to help finish the Falcons off. If they feel he needs more carries ... he will get more carries. Until then, I think this rotation works! If it ain't broke, don't fix it!
Dave Spadaro: My expectation is that Jay Ajayi will get the majority of the carries, Corey Clement will mix in as a receiver and a runner – as well as a pass protector – and that LeGarrette Blount will be the short-yardage running back.
Ajayi had a great first quarter against Atlanta and then the Eagles worked in the rotation the rest of the way, got the passing game going, and used all three backs effectively. Why change that?
Chris McPherson: I think the Eagles' rotation paid off in a huge way last Saturday. Here's why. On the fourth-and-goal touchdown run by LeGarrette Blount, the Falcons might have keyed in on an inside run with No. 29 in the backfield. Well, Trey Burton made the key block to spring Blount to the right side for the score. This formula helped the Eagles get to this point. All three backs have their assignments, are healthy, and ready to go.