Sunday is going to be the biggest game of the year, with the winner of the NFC Championship Game earning a trip to the Super Bowl. There will be tremendous pressure on both the players and coaches. This is a special opportunity. Some players never get this far.
If you listened to head coach Doug Pederson's press conferences this week, he made it sound like this will be business as usual. As crazy as that sounds, I think it is absolutely the right message.
Pederson has pushed this team to play at a high level all year. He started this message back in the spring during OTAs. Pederson told players to "stack practices," meaning to have a good practice and then to add a good practice on top of that and to keep it going. The team had a strong Training Camp. The Eagles were 2-0 in the preseason games where the starters played a lot of snaps. The team went 13-3 in the regular season and won their playoff game last weekend.
The Eagles have been a good team all year, in large part due to their consistency. Go back and rewatch the season opener. You'll see the same defense that the team used in the win over Atlanta. The opponent couldn't run the ball. There were several third-and-long situations, which weren't converted, and the defense was especially tough in the red zone.
The offense was tough and physical in the run game. The offense mixed in play-action passes and RPOs. The offense was good on third down and moved the chains on a regular basis.
Pederson established an identity with the Eagles last year. He just didn't have the players to make it effective week after week. This team is different. They have the bodies up front to control the line of scrimmage and they have playmakers who can do things down the field.
For the Eagles to win on Sunday, they need the game to look like games that were played in September, October, November, and December.
One of the big reasons the Eagles were so consistent was their approach. They don't wait for big games to play their best. Pederson pushes this team to perform at a high level anytime they take the field. This team has been special in that regard.
Most teams have a game or two where they look flat. Just a year ago, the Eagles looked terrible in a loss at Cincinnati. Andy Reid's teams were usually good for one game a year where they just seemed out of it. The 2017 Eagles have played well all year long. There were some slow starts and some sloppy football, but this team found a way to push through that and win those games.
Pederson has been asked a lot this week about his message to the team. Is he reminding them of what a huge moment this is? Is he having them focus on being underdogs? Everyone is just convinced there must be some special speech or theme for the week. This is the NFC title game. This is when you do something different, right?
Teams that live on emotion and try to get up for big games are going to be unpredictable and wildly inconsistent. Pederson wants to see the same team that he's seen all year long. The Eagles didn't finish with the best record in the league by accident. They earned that.
You also have to be careful with emotions because games can be so topsy-turvy. If the Eagles storm out to a 17-0 lead, you don't want them to ease up and start celebrating. If they get down 17-0, you don't want them to panic. Pederson wants his team to be tough and methodical, which is what they've done all year.
All the talk is going to focus on the battle of backup quarterbacks, with Case Keenum battling Nick Foles. The real key to this game will be the outstanding defenses. The Vikings scored 29 points in their win over the Saints last week. The Eagles have given up 29 points in their last four home games combined. This won't be a shootout.
Minnesota has an outstanding team. The Vikings went 13-3 this year and have a lot of talent. The one matchup that certainly favors the Eagles is the Minnesota offensive line going up against the Eagles' dominant defensive line.
Fletcher Cox played his best game of the year last week. He was all over the field against the Falcons and gave them fits. The Vikings will need to use double teams on him on a regular basis. Brandon Graham will be going against a backup at right tackle. This is a game where Graham needs to make plays. He needs to be disruptive from kickoff to the final whistle.
One concern is Keenum's mobility. He can run, but more importantly, he can throw on the run. He was outstanding this year on throws outside the pocket. The Eagles need to keep him in the pocket as much as possible. The back seven must plaster the receivers in coverage. The Eagles already played Alex Smith, Dak Prescott, and Russell Wilson so this isn't a new concept.
The strategy this week should be pretty simple. Stop the running back duo of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. Put the Vikings in lots of third-and-long situations. Keenum isn't as effective in known passing situations.
The Eagles' offense has a huge challenge. It'll be facing the top-ranked defense in the league. This sounds daunting, but the Eagles went 6-1 in games this year against teams with top-10 defenses. The only loss was the regular season finale where the starters barely played.
Carson Wentz was obviously a huge part of the Eagles winning those games, but you still have the same offensive line, running backs, and pass catcher. The same offensive masterminds are putting together the game plan.
The Eagles don't need Foles to lead them to 35 points. They need to score enough to win the game. Foles and the offense can do that. The Saints scored 24 points in fewer than 17 minutes last week. The Vikings are really good, but they aren't the 1985 Bears.
I think the key will be having an effective running game. If the Eagles can get 3 yards a carry, it will keep them in reasonable third-down situations. The Vikings were phenomenal on third down this year. Moving the chains on them won't be easy.
The Vikings blitz more than most teams so Foles, the offensive linemen, and the running backs must all be on the same page in regard to protection. Breakdowns can lead to sacks and turnovers. Eagles coaches say they like it when teams blitz because it gives them a chance to make big plays. The receivers need to come up big when they get the ball in space.
Nelson Agholor has the best matchup of the receivers. He could be a key factor on Sunday. I am interested to see what wrinkles or new plays the coaches will have. Pederson had a couple of special plays for last week and they proved to be impactful ones. I imagine he's got something to use this week as well.
The Eagles can't afford to be sloppy against the Vikings. Last week, the Eagles were able to overcome two turnovers, a missed extra point, and some key penalties. They can't play like that and beat the Vikings.
This is the biggest game of the year, but the key for the Eagles is to play just like they did all season long. This is a talented team that knows how to win. No team was good enough to come into Lincoln Financial Field and beat the Eagles' starters this year. I don't see that changing on Sunday.