The Eagles went to Minnesota on Sunday not as a reward for a good season, but rather to take care of business. Some teams are happy just to make the playoffs. Being there is the equivalent of a college team getting to go to a bowl game. The Eagles have been to the playoffs. Just showing up means very little. The point for the Eagles is to go win the Super Bowl.
The journey to Tampa got off to a good start as the Eagles beat the Vikings on Sunday in a tough playoff game. The final score was 26-14, but the game was close until midway through the fourth quarter. It wasn't a pretty win. It was methodical. The Eagles got no style points. I was happy that they won a tough game. That might have been the best thing that could have happened.
The playoffs boil down to this: survive and advance. The closeness of the game forced the Eagles to stay focused all game long. They had to stay on edge. That should serve them well next week.
I was glad to see the team face some adversity and respond well. The Eagles were coming off their biggest win of the year. They went on the road to play a hot team. It would have been very easy for the Eagles to relax when they got the 16-7 lead and coast from there. That didn't happen. Nor did they panic when Minnesota responded with a good drive that cut the lead to 16-14.
I did feel that Minnesota outplayed the Eagles for a lot of the first half. They got a lot of pressure on Donovan McNabb. Tarvaris Jackson wasn't getting hit nearly enough. The Vikings were sustaining drives and the Eagles offense relied on big plays to have any success. I talked to a friend at halftime and told him my biggest concern was that we weren't controlling the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles, however, dominated the second half. They only outscored the Vikings 10-0, but the Eagles had complete control of the game. They out-gained Minnesota by almost 100 yards. The Vikings barely crossed midfield. They only got as far as the Eagles' 49-yard line before the Eagles defense put up a stand.
The defense played a terrific game. They allowed 301 yards and 14 points. Forty-seven of those yards came in the final four minutes when the Eagles were allowing short throws. Adrian Peterson, the league's leading rusher, struggled most of the day. He broke off a 40-yard touchdown run, but was held in control aside from that. The defense only allowed one pass play of more than 20 yards. I think you get the picture. Jim Johnson's crew was stout and stingy. They came up with a couple of turnovers that resulted in 10 points. Asante Samuel picked off a poor throw from Tarvaris Jackson and ran it back 44 yards for a touchdown. Juqua Parker recovered a fumble that resulted in a field goal. When the defense can allow 14 points and create 10 you are going to have a really good shot to win.
You don't beat the Vikings without controlling Peterson. The Eagles used good team defense to shut him down. The first order of business was tackling well. The defense did a terrific job in that area. You didn't see Peterson breaking tackles or making guys miss. He got very little in the way of yards after contact. The defense also did a good job of swarming to the ball to contain him. Peterson always had several Eagles around him, essentially boxing him in. Penetration is another key. Peterson is less effective when running east-west than attacking upfield. Linemen, linebackers and even defensive backs all got into the backfield at various times on Sunday. Great team defense.
No one player had a great game. It truly was a team effort. The guys who stood out the most in stopping the run were Quintin Mikell, Chris Gocong and Mike Patterson. They all attacked and really took it to Adrian Peterson. Mikell led the defensive backs in tackles. He flew up quickly in run support. Sometimes that meant simply occupying his area and funneling the runner back to the middle. Sometimes that meant he had to take out blockers. Guard Anthony Hererra found out the hard way that Mikell means business when he comes up in run support. Mikell took out Hererra's legs and blew up a running play to the outside. Mikell didn't get the tackle, but he made the play.
Gocong played a terrific game, with one huge exception. He overran his gap on Peterson's long touchdown run. If Gocong stays in that gap, he's likely to make the tackle and only give up a couple of yards. Instead of getting down on himself Gocong responded in a smart way. He started making plays. By my count, Gocong had a pair of tackles-for-loss and also had three tackles where the runner was stopped for no gain or less than a yard. One of those plays came on third-and-1. He stopped Peterson for minimal gain and got the ball back for the offense.
Patterson has played well the last few games. He doesn't have much in the way of stats to show it, but he's being more disruptive. He's played the run pretty well the whole year. On Sunday, Patterson really came up big. He made three very nice solo tackles of Peterson. He blew up a screen pass by getting pressure on Jackson and forcing an overthrow. Patterson blew up a running play with penetration. He clogged the middle on a lot of run plays where he wasn't able to actually get in on the tackle. Good game.
Everyone on defense came up with a key stop or play at some time in the game. Trent Cole got pressure on the pass that Samuel picked off. Stewart Bradley was a force in the middle all game long. Brodrick Bunkley got penetration and blew up multiple plays. Brian Dawkins forced a fumble (what's new?).
The offense had some serious struggles, especially in the first half. McNabb was very up and down. A lot of that had to do with Minnesota's pressure. They blitzed a lot and had guys coming free off the edge and up the middle. Our pass blocking was very poor prior to halftime. There were a few reasons for that. The Vikings were extremely aggressive. They took chances and most of them worked pretty well. There was confusion on some blitzes. It is never good when two linemen block one defender and another blitzer goes free.
Don't discount the dome effect. It was incredibly loud in there and that gave the defense an advantage. McNabb couldn't do much with the snap count. The defense was able to time things well and get off the ball in a hurry. Just look at Jared Allen's numbers to see how important playing in a dome is. He had a sack in seven of his nine home games. He only got sacks in three of eight road games.
The poor blocking limited what we could do on the ground and in the air. Brian Westbrook had no running room. McNabb didn't have time to look downfield. The offense couldn't sustain drives. The Eagles were only 3-of-8 on third down conversions in the first half.
Luckily, there were big plays that moved the offense in position to score. The first field goal of the game came after a long punt return by DeSean Jackson. The next field goal came after a long run by Correll Buckhalter. The final field goal of the first half came after a 34-yard pass to Jackson.
The second half was different. The offense still didn't play as well as we need them to, but they were able to sustain drives and play good field position football. The Vikings pinned the offense deep on two different occasions. McNabb and the offense responded by driving the ball out to the midfield area. That is called ""flipping the field."" You go from having bad position to good and then being able to pin your opponent deep. This isn't exciting football, but it is sound strategy that works when you have a good defense. It would have been nice for the Eagles to get points on one of the long drives, but the fact that both started deep and moved well should not be overlooked.
Those long drives consumed more than 11 minutes of game time. That kept Peterson on the sideline. Minnesota is a ball control, running offense. They don't do so well when they are behind and have to throw the ball. The Eagles had more time of possession in the second half. That stat can be misleading at times, but not in this case. The Vikings were hurt by the long drives even though they didn't lead to points.
McNabb was money in the second half. The offense started working the middle of the field and things started to click. Jason Avant came up big on several third downs. He caught the ball over the middle and moved the chains. Avant has really become a terrific slot receiver. Brent Celek is looking more and more like a good player. He led the team with six catches and made a couple of real nice plays. McNabb ran a pump-and-go with him. That's where Celek lined up out wide and acted as if he were running a slant. He then bent the route back outside and went upfield. McNabb hit him with a good throw for 19 yards.
The Eagles also ran a tight end delay to Celek late in the game. Celek lined up to the right. He faked blocking, then quietly drifted to the left. McNabb put great touch on the ball and threw it where only Celek would get it out wide. Smartly, Celek slid to make sure he went down in bounds to keep the clock running. Syracuse fans may recall McNabb throwing a touchdown pass against Virginia Tech in 1998 that looked a lot like that.
The game broke open in the fourth quarter. The score was only 16-14. The Eagles were in control, but one miscue would change things. Or one big play. A screen pass was thrown to the right side and it was executed perfectly. McNabb got the ball to Westbrook smoothly. There were three linemen, a pair of receivers and Buckhalter out in front of him ready to block. Nick Cole got a big block. Buckhalter and Herremans took out linebackers. Kevin Curtis put a defensive back on his back with a pancake block. DeSean Jackson just ran interference between his defender and Westbrook. That gave Westbrook a lot of room to run and he made the one guy miss that he had to. That simple play turned into a 71-yard touchdown.
The offense must score touchdowns after sustained drives from here on out. You cannot rely on big plays and turnovers to win in the postseason.
Don't overlook the role that special teams played in the win. That group was tremendous. David Akers kicked four field goals. Three of them were from more than 43 yards out. He hit more kicks from 40 on Sunday than he did the entire 2007 season. How's that for a wow stat? Sav Rocca punted four times. All four were downed inside the 20-yard line. Kyle Eckel blew up the wedge on a couple of kickoffs and made a tackle.
DeSean Jackson was huge on punt returns. Boy did he have an impact in that game. He set up the first field goal with a 62-yard return. He had another long return as well. He took a third quarter punt back 30 yards and gave the offense good field position. That drive ended in a turnover, but Jackson did his part. He was tremendous.
The win over the Vikings wasn't a thing of beauty, but it was the kind of business-like win that a team can build off. Remember the wild card win in 1995 over Detroit? Everything went perfect in that game and it felt like we won the Super Bowl. The next week Dallas ran all over the Eagles. I think Guy McIntyre is still in therapy for what Leon Lett did to him. The win on Sunday wasn't a culmination of things. It wasn't something to be celebrated. It was just another step on the journey to Tampa.