At least this week we know for sure that the Eagles won't be affected on the field by weather. Not that we're complaining after the memorable 34-20 win over the Lions a few snowy days ago. But with a trip to Minnesota looming – the first road game the Eagles have played since their win in Green Bay four weeks ago – the Eagles now prepare for a dome matchup with the 3-9-1 Vikings. A year after riding Adrian Peterson's Offensive Player of the Year season to the playoffs, the Vikings have suffered through a mostly lost 2013 that has been characterized by turmoil at the quarterback position. Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman have all started game for the Vikings this season, with none grabbing hold of the job. This week, the Eagles will likely see Cassel, who nearly led the Vikings to victory last week in Baltimore.
The Eagles, meanwhile, are riding high, alone atop the NFC East at 8-5. Five straight wins have given the Eagles control of their own destiny as they look to make the playoffs in Chip Kelly's first season at the helm. Nick Foles has continued to cement himself as one of the stories of the 2013 season as he responded to his first interception of the season by helping to lead the Eagles to victory against the Lions. The Eagles defense has undergone an extreme turnaround and is beginning to look like one of the league's best as they have held opponents to 21 points or fewer in nine consecutive games.
Of course, this week for the Eagles may once again by about LeSean McCoy, the league's leading rusher who broke the franchise record for rushing yards in one game with his 217-yard outburst atop the snow at Lincoln Financial Field. McCoy's only competition for the title of best running back in the league is the man who will be on the opposite sideline this week – Peterson, the reigning rushing champ and the only running back within striking distance of McCoy for this year's title. Peterson, though, is questionable this week after suffering an injury against the Ravens last week. While McCoy and Peterson can both put on a show if all goes well Sunday, there will be plenty more factors that determine Sunday's outcome …
When The Eagles Have The Ball:
After dominating on offense for three quarters and then being outscored 33-0 in their previous four fourth quarters, the Eagles flipped the script last week and dominated to the Detroit Lions in the final stanza of Sunday's game by exploding for 288 total yards and 28 points in the fourth quarter. That after they managed a meager 190 total yards and six points through the first three. As euphoric as the Snow Bowl victory was, it is now in the rearview mirror.
Nick Foles threw his first interception of the season, and with it a chance to break Peyton Manning's consecutive-touchdowns-thrown-without-an-interception streak, against the Lions when he airmailed a pass during the second quarter. However, the unflappable second-year pro bounced back and showed why he is emerging as one of the NFL's best young quarterbacks. The raw passing numbers – 11-for-22 for 179 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 73.9 rating – were not gaudy, but the way he maintained his composure and made plays when he had to – including the one-yard touchdown sneak on fourth down to make the score 28-20 – was more impressive than statistics could depict. Foles is now 5-1 in 2013 (not counting the win over the New York Giants when Foles took over for an injured Michael Vick in the second quarter) and leads the charge for an offense that ranks third in the NFL at 409.3 yards per game and fifth with 25.0 offensive points scored per game. He still ranks first among quarterbacks with 9.04 yards per attempt and a 120.0 rating.
It took some time for DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper to make their mark against the Lions, but they, like their quarterback, made the big plays when they had to, particularly on back-to-back-to-back snaps on the Eagles' first scoring drive of the game late in the third quarter. First, there was Jackson's clutch 12-yard snag right before the ball hit the snow on third-and-11, which was immediately followed by Cooper's tumbling, over the shoulder catch for 44 yards on first down, then Jackson's 19-yard touchdown grab in the back of the end zone. Three plays, 75 yards, touchdown. That sequence ignited the Eagles offense and marked the first of five straight touchdown drives. Jackson currently ranks ninth in the NFL with 1,080 yards (and eight touchdowns) on 65 catches, while Cooper has 37 catches for 714 yards (and seven touchdowns), an average of 19.3 yards per catch that ranks second in the NFL.
As for the tight ends, Zach Ertz was held without a catch against the Lions after his breakout performance against the Cardinals, though he was the one on the field in single-tight end sets. Brent Celek had a tremendous game as a blocker and caught Foles' first and last passes of the games, with the latter coming on fourth-and-12 to ice the victory.
LeSean McCoy, the hero of the Snow Bowl with a career-high 217 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries, has reclaimed his (rightful) spot atop the NFL's rushing leaders after breaking Steve Van Buren's single-game team record of 205 yards that had stood for 64 years. The Eagles also reclaimed their (rightful) spot atop the NFL with an average of 158.5 yards per game on the ground. McCoy now has 1,305 yards and seven touchdowns on 261 carries (5.0 yards per attempt), which puts him on pace for 1,606 yards and would break the Eagles' single-season rushing record of 1,512 yards set by Wilbert Montgomery in 1979. Buoying McCoy's performance were Bryce Brown and Chris Polk, who contributed a total of 10 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown, which hopefully signals the emergence of a potent complementary rushing attack at the perfect time.
The offensive line had perhaps its best overall game of the season against the Lions when factoring in run and pass blocking. Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans and Lane Johnson were nothing short of marvelous in paving the way for the Eagles to rush for 299 yards, their most since the infamous "Pickle Juice" game against the Cowboys in Week 1 of the 2000 season. The conditions helped a lot when it came to keeping the Lions pass rush at bay, but that is not to take credit away from how well the offensive line protected Foles, who had all day to throw, a clean pocket from which to survey the field and was not sacked at all.
The Vikings defense has had its issues all season and ranks last in the NFL with 27.7 offensive points allowed per game, 31st in yards allowed per game at 401.2, 30th in passing yards allowed per game at 282.5, 22nd in rushing yards allowed per game at 118.8, 21st in sacks with 30 and 20th in takeaways at 18. Still, the unit manages to scrap and claw its way into keeping games close and cannot be overlooked.
Veteran stalwarts Kevin Williams (24 total tackles, 3.0 for loss, 2.5 sacks) and Jared Allen, who leads the team in sacks with 7.5, are the standouts on the defensive line, with the underrated Brian Robison playing opposite Allen and pitching in 7.0 sacks of his own.
The linebackers are headlined by eight-year pro Chad Greenway, who mans the strong side and is quietly putting up a very impressive season with 116 total tackles (75 solo, 6.0 for loss), 3.0 sacks and three interceptions. Erin Henderson, the former Maryland standout, is second on the team in total tackles with 94 (61 solo, 10 for loss) and has also recorded 3.0 sacks and two interceptions. He moved to the weak side two weeks ago to accommodate the rise of Audie Cole (35 total tackles, 2.0 for loss, 1.0 sack), who has taken over at middle linebacker.
The secondary has been beset by a number of injuries and has struggled as a result. However, that group might get a boost with the possible return of Harrison Smith, who in October was put on injured reserve with a designation to return but has been practicing and is eligible to play against the Eagles. When Smith returns, he is expected to take Jamarca Sanford's spot in the starting lineup and play alongside Andrew Sendejo, who replaced Smith following his injury. Sendejo has steadily improved and is third on the team in total tackles (68). He recorded his first career interception in the Vikings' heartbreaking 29-26 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
First-round pick and starting cornerback Xavier Rhodes hurt his ankle against the Ravens and is expected to miss a few weeks. He will be replaced by Chris Cook (40 tackles, two passes defended) to start opposite Josh Robinson (54 tackles, four passes defended).
When The Vikings Have The Ball:
Despite their 3-9-1 record, the Minnesota Vikings have been able to put up some impressive offensive numbers. Minnesota ranks in the top half of the league in points per game (24.2) and yards per game (346.1). They also boast the seventh best rushing attack in the league, averaging 131.3 yards per game on the grounds, primarily thanks to their All-Pro running back.
Since 2007, Adrian Peterson has been a workhorse in the Vikings offense. After being named Offensive Rookie of the Year in his first season out of the University of Oklahoma, Peterson's career skyrocketed. Now the consensus No. 1 running back in the NFL, Peterson took home the AP Offensive Player of the Year award in 2012 for his remarkable 2,097 rushing yards just one year after having major reconstructive surgery on his left knee.
Entering last weekend, Peterson had maintained his dominance over the rest of the NFL by leading the league in rushing, but his afternoon against the Baltimore Ravens ended abruptly. Early in the second quarter, Peterson picked up four yards on a pass from Matt Cassel, but was then carted off of the field with an apparent leg injury. Earlier this week, it looked as if Peterson stood little chance of playing on Sunday. A notoriously quick healer though, Peterson practiced for the Vikings on Friday and is listed as questionable.
If Peterson can't play or if he is unable to be an every-down back, where do the Vikings turn in order to keep their offense afloat? After Peterson went down on Sunday, backup Toby Gerhart filled in nicely, rushing for 89 yards, including a go-ahead 41 yard touchdown scamper late in the fourth quarter. The Ravens would eventually pull out a win in the final moments of a crazy finish, but Gerhart proved that he can carry the load. Gerhart has 283 rushing yards on the season on just 36 carries (7.9 yards per carry), and his time as the starting running back at Stanford left quite the impression on Chip Kelly, who coached against the physical runner while at Oregon. "He played against us (in 2009) when I was at Oregon and he had a 39-carry game for I think 2,085 yards it seemed like to me," Kelly said on Monday. The Eagles head coach was slightly off with his estimation, but Gerhart did have a big day, carrying the ball 38 times for 223 yards and three touchdowns in a Stanford victory.
Gerhart, though, is also listed as questionable as he battles through a hamstring injury. There is a possibility that the Eagles could dodge both Peterson and Gerhart. Matt Asiata, a second-year man out of Utah, is the only other running back on the Vikings roster, but he hasn't carried the ball this season, seeing the majority of his snaps on special teams. There is a chance that both of the Vikings' top two backs are healthy enough to play, but if Peterson can't go, it would be the Eagles third-straight game in which the opponent did not have their leading rusher at the time (Arizona's Andre Ellington and Detroit's Reggie Bush).
Peterson has provided a steady presence for the Vikings at the running back, but the same cannot be said for the quarterback position. The Vikings have had three different players – Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman – start under center, and none of them have fared all that well. Freeman was acquired four games into the regular season, but he has had a tough time familiarizing himself with the offense, and as a result, he has been active in just three of nine games since joining the team, making just one start. Ponder has started nine games, but his play has been pedestrian at best, throwing for 1,648 yards, with seven touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. It is uncertain whether Ponder will be able to play, however, as he missed last week's game with a concussion. That leaves the door open for Cassel, who played relatively well last week against Baltimore, throwing for 265 yards and two touchdowns. Cassel has seen action in six games this season, and statistically he has been the Vikings best quarterback, posting a passer rating of 84.9 for the season.
The Vikings receiving corps hasn't been anything to write home about. Jerome Simpson is their leading receiver on the season with 670 yards, and also leads the team with a 15.6 yards per catch average. Greg Jennings, in his first season with the team, has been very up and down, and has not eclipsed 100 receiving yards in any game this season, after doing so 23 times in seven seasons as a Green Bay Packer. Perhaps the biggest threat that Minnesota possesses in the passing game is rookie Cordarrelle Patterson. Though he is known more for his skills as a returner, Patterson is coming off of his best offensive performance of the season, catching five passes for 141 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown, against Baltimore. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was expected to have a breakout season in Minneapolis, but he has been inactive for the past five games and was recently placed on season-ending IR with a foot injury.
Though the Vikings have suffered a number of injuries on the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles will still have their hands full defensively, as Minnesota has scored at least 20 points in each of their last seven games. Though the mid-December weather in Minneapolis may be frigid, the domed Mall of America Field will provide perfect playing conditions and a fast track for both teams' offenses to work on.
As has been the case during the nine-game stretch of not allowing more than 21 points, the Eagles will find success defensively if they can generate an effective pass rush. Vikings quarterbacks have been sacked 34 times this season, and the Eagles will look to increase that number. Last weekend, Matthew Stafford played true to his nature and got the ball out quickly without being sacked once in last Sunday's Snow Bowl. That being said, the Eagles did get timely pressure on the quarterback and did a nice job in the tough conditions. The Vikings have a couple of talented tackles in Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, but this could be a game where the Eagles rush off the edge could be a big factor. Listed at 343 pounds, Loadholt is tough to move at right tackle, but Connor Barwin has a big advantage in the speed department and could give the Vikings fits. With Trent Cole playing very well on the other side, the Vikings offensive line could be in for a long day.
Moving to the secondary, the Eagles may need a big game out of Brandon Boykin. The versatile slot-defender has been one of the Eagles best defensive players all season long, and matching up against either Patterson or Carlson will be no easy task. Not many corners have the speed to keep up with Patterson once he gets going, but Boykin just might. For Boykin and the rest of the secondary, the philosophy remains the same- don't let anything behind the defense. The Vikings receivers will get their yards in intermediate and short routes, but the Eagles have been superb at not allowing the big play. Unlike the last two games for the Eagles, the Vikings do not feature an elite-level receiver, but the Eagles secondary must continue to play as if Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald was lining up against them.