When the schedule came out in April, there were a lot of eyes focused on Week 5. Vikings at Eagles. This was going to be a rematch of the NFC Championship Game. It looked like it could be a key game for deciding home-field advantage for this season's playoffs, with both teams expected to win big and be title contenders.
Rather than talk of the Super Bowl, this game is the Desperation Bowl. Both teams come in with two losses already and neither has played anywhere close to the level expected. How does something like this happen? The NFL is all about change.
Mike Mayock is the color analyst for the Eagles' preseason games. During a 2017 game, Mayock was going through the Eagles' schedule for the upcoming season. He was pointing out all the tough games and cautioning Eagles fans that there might not be 10 wins to be had. The Cardinals were expected to be a title contender. The Giants were definitely a playoff team. Facing Denver? That was going to be really tough for a young quarterback like Carson Wentz.
Well, the Eagles swept the Giants. They blew out the Broncos and Cardinals.
Things changed. The Eagles went from a possible team to watch in the offseason to the Super Bowl Champs.
A lot of things went right for the Eagles and Vikings as they went 13-3 a year ago. They played great defense. They moved the chains on offense. They scored touchdowns in the red zone. With many of the same players coming back, the teams were expected to play like that again. That hasn't happened so far.
Both teams are discovering that there are no guarantees in the NFL. The Vikings had the best defense in football last year. They brought back most of the same players and even added some talented pieces. Expectations were sky-high.
Instead, the Vikings have given up 31 points a game over the last three weeks. They don't have a single takeaway. Teams are moving the ball with ease and piling up points. Minnesota never had a stretch like this in 2017.
Maintaining excellence is a huge challenge. NFL teams have similar amounts of talent. All it takes are a handful of mistakes each week and excellence can become mediocrity.
The Eagles and Vikings have a huge opportunity this week. The Eagles can get back above .500 with a win and make life a lot easier for themselves. The Eagles haven't had a losing record since 2016. They don't want to be in that position.
Minnesota would be back to .500 with a win and that would feel great to the Vikings. They have played a challenging schedule and had some tough issues to deal with.
Both teams need to play with urgency, even though this is the first week of October. The NFC is a loaded conference. Early losses will probably cost someone a playoff berth.
The winning formula for the Eagles is pretty simple, actually. Quit making mistakes. Receivers need to catch the football. Offensive linemen have to block better. Defensive linemen should play with more discipline. Linebackers ought to tackle better. Defensive backs must do a better job with their coverage assignments.
I'm really curious to see how the Eagles attack the Vikings. Pass protection was a huge issue last week against the Titans. It is hard to attack down the field when the quarterback doesn't have a clean pocket and time to make a good throw.
Opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 105.9 against Minnesota. That defense is vulnerable to the pass right now. The Eagles' passing game has been highly erratic this year. They need to step up if they want to exploit the Vikings' weakness.
Alshon Jeffery had a great game in his 2018 debut. He'll need to deliver again this week. We're still waiting for Nelson Agholor to have his breakout game this season. He's got 25 catches, but there have been too many drops and not enough big plays. The Eagles need Agholor to play well for this offense to really get going.
Carson Wentz was great at times last week. He needs to continue to improve, especially with situational football. He was great on third down and in the red zone last year. That's not the case this season. That must change. You aren't going to win games by kicking field goals. You must score touchdowns.
The Eagles' defense dominated the Vikings back in 2016, as Philly won 21-10. The defense piled up six sacks and four takeaways. The Eagles dominated Minnesota in January, winning 38-7. The defense had three takeaways and even scored a touchdown. The Vikings were 0-for-3 in the red zone and that proved to be crucial. Minnesota could move the ball, but they couldn't score points.
It would be foolish to assume the Eagles' defense will once again dominate the Vikings. They upgraded at quarterback by signing Kirk Cousins in the offseason. Cousins gave the Eagles fits when he played in Washington. He can sling the ball downfield. He can make tough throws. Cousins is also more mobile than you expect.
Cousins has an elite pair of receivers to get the ball to. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are a deadly duo. Both are outstanding route runners. Both can generate explosive plays. They move all over the field, making it tougher to scheme against them.
The Eagles' secondary has had real issues this season with stopping wide receivers. This is a critical matchup. Jalen Mills can do himself a world of good with a strong game. If he gives up big plays, the questions and scrutiny will continue to roll in. He's not alone in this, however. Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones also need to play better.
I'm curious to see what the Eagles do defensively. Minnesota is dead last in the NFL in rushing and rushing attempts. Running back Dalvin Cook is questionable. You don't need to play eight-man fronts against them. The Eagles could mix things up schematically, daring Minnesota to run the ball.
Fletcher Cox and the rest of the defensive line must come up big against a shaky Vikings offensive line. Derek Barnett will miss the game, but that just means Michael Bennett and Chris Long will have more of a chance to impact the game. The Eagles must win up front.
The Eagles have been a great home team under Doug Pederson. They need that trend to continue on Sunday. It doesn't matter if this game turns into a shootout or an ugly defensive battle. The Eagles need to find a way to win.
Tommy Lawlor, _goeagles99 on the Eagles Message Boards_, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. You can also find his work at _IgglesBlitz.com_ where he is the site's editor.