The Minnesota Vikings face a near-mirror image of themselves today when they take on the Andy Reid-led Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the NFL playoffs. Like Minnesota, the Eagles employ a stout defense and a tightly wound offense. Both teams feature a premiere running back tandem--the Vikings, Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, the Eagles, Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter, modest receiving corps, and enigmatic quarterbacks.
Both the Eagles and the Vikings also have head coaches who love to play close games, passive-aggressively hint at the genius in their systems that have yet to yield a single Super Bowl victory, and equally passive-aggressively nudge their local media contingencies to cast aspersions on fan bases who do what fan bases do--root for a winning team and call for improvement when results fail to meet aspirations.
As such, there is but one certainty on Sunday--whichever team emerges victorious between the Vikings and Eagles, one coach will be making passive-aggressive statements regarding the fans who "did not believe" in the system, while the other will be making passive-aggressive comments about how the team "overcame adversity" when "nobody gave them a chance to do much." The fan base in the former city rightfully will rejoice reservedly, while the fan base in the latter justifiably will call for change, despite their local team having made the first-round of the twelve-team NFL playoffs.
For the Vikings to put their fan base squarely in the former category and give head coach Brad Childress an unwarranted opening to hint at the genius of his system, the Vikings need to accomplish five things, at least four of which are feasible; the Vikings need to play well on special teams, run well, put pressure on Donovan McNabb, stop the Eagles' running game, and make the occasional deep connection.
The Vikings should have some success putting pressure on the older-than-his-years McNabb. On the season, McNabb has been sacked 23 times and thrown 11 picks--about the middle of the pack for starting quarterbacks. While McNabb put up some decent fantasy points last week against a horrible Dallas defense, those points came largely on the strength of three plays rather than his overall performance which produced far less gaudy numbers of 11 of 21 for 189 yards. If the Vikings can hold McNabb to those numbers, they should feel good about keeping the Eagles' quarterback from passing and rushing for multiple touchdowns, as he also did against the Cowboys.
Though the Vikings will miss the five sacks that has been Ray Edwards at left defensive end this season, they will make do with either Otis Grigsby or Brian Robison who combined for half that total. Whomever plays left end, the Vikings will rely on right defensive end Jared Allen to apply the bulk of the pressure on McNabb. If Pat Williams is able to play and draw double coverage, Allen's job will be easier. If not, the Vikings will have to hope to keep McNabb in the pocket and to force the errant passes that McNabb is sometimes known to throw when his receivers are not open.
Stopping the Eagles' running game also clearly hinges on Pat Williams' status. With Williams, the Vikings have the top run defense in the NFL. Without Williams, they have been a bit more ordinary, yielding 98 and 135 yards rushing in the final two regular season games against Atlanta and the New York Giants, respectively. Those aren't terrible numbers against two of the league's better run offenses, but the difference between those numbers and the Vikings' 72-yards-per-game average with Pat Williams in the lineup might be the difference between a win and a loss in this matchup.
To stop the Eagles' rushing attack, the Vikings will need to be solid not only up the middle, but also on the edges. That will put a premium on the tackling of cornerbacks Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield and the pursuit and tackling by outside linebackers Chad Greenway and Ben Leber. Missed tackles haunted the Vikings at times last year and early this year, but seem less of a concern of late.
On offense, the Vikings clearly need to get the ball to Peterson and Taylor in space. Despite Peterson's pedigree, Taylor actually appears the greater matchup problem for the Eagles, not only because he holds the ball better than has Peterson lately, but also because he runs well behind blocking. Though Peterson is a better bet to break a run from behind the line of scrimmage, the Eagles' defense ranks fourth in the league against the run.
Clearing out the short pass will require the Vikings to go deep on occasion. That's been a problem for Tarvaris Jackson since he arrived in Minnesota. Despite increasing zip and accuracy on his intermediate passes, Jackson still tends to miss by wide margins on his deep passes. Whether Jackson will choose today to overcome what can only be a mental issue clearly remains to be seen.
If the Vikings can pressure McNabb, limit the Eagles' running game, and clear space underneath for Childress' short-game attack, they have every chance to do the Cincinnati Bengals one half-game better and beat the Eagles. If, however, the Vikings special teams collapses under the weight of its recently encouraging mediocrity, the Vikings will have problems even if they succeed in the other phases of the game.
Playing well on special teams is something that, once seemingly impossible for the 2008-2009 Vikings, now seems at least possible. But it still will be a chore for the Vikings.
The Vikings' kicking and punting has been solid most of the season, the concern has been the coverage. Minnesota ranks last in the NFL in kick and punt coverage, yielding four touchdowns, 14.9 yards per punt return, and 23.5 yards per kick return. As a consequence of the Vikings' poor coverage on punts, only four teams have faced fewer fair catches than have the Vikings--none of those teams are in the playoffs.
Philadelphia is a poor punt-return team but a much more formidable kick-return team. Quintin Demps has returned 52 kicks for 1314 yards and one touchdown this season. And though rookie wide-receiver DeSean Jackson has a less gaudy 440 return yards on 50 punt returns, his numbers were stunted by early season indecision and 16 fair catches. Against the Vikings, Jackson likely will be aggressive.
The maddening thing about this game for Vikings' fans is that the result could go one of four ways. The Vikings could win big, lose big, or win or lose close. That pretty much covers the gamut of options. And that's what both encourages and cautions Vikings' fans.
Under Childress, the Vikings perform best when they take an early lead. An early one-touchdown lead generally ensures a close game, though not necessarily a victory. An early two-touchdown lead usually ensures one of the Vikings' rare lop-sided victories. Everything else falls under the category of things giving rise to the defensive, passive-aggressive, post-game Childress. It is a home game, but so were the last two games of the season.
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