We’ve looked at the 10 most important players for conference championship Sunday, but now it’s time to take a look at the biggest keys for each of the games. Here are the top five keys for the NFC championship game between the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles (for the top five keys to the AFC game, click here):
1. Minnesota continuing to not turn it over
The Eagles are very good at forcing turnovers. They were fourth in the NFL with 31 takeaways and fourth with a plus-11 turnover margin. They have a defense that’s based on pressure and forcing game-changing mistakes.
But the Vikings don’t turn it over. In 13 of 17 games this season, the Vikings turned it over one or zero times. They’ve had multiple turnovers in only one of their past eight games (a loss at the Carolina Panthers). Case Keenum had just seven interceptions in 481 regular-season attempts. You’d assume the Eagles will need some short fields or even some easy points off turnovers to win, but the Vikings don’t often cooperate with that plan.
2. Weather, maybe
Dome teams don’t have great success when they venture outdoors in cold weather. Via Howard Eskin of WIP, dome teams are 4-24 in their past 28 playoff games when the temperature was 35 degrees or less. That includes the Falcons’ loss last Saturday in Philadelphia (32 degrees at kickoff).
The Vikings live in extreme cold, but they don’t play in it. Their defense seems like it would be built for outdoor football, but 4-24 is a remarkable number. The low temperature in Philadelphia on Sunday is expected to be 34 degrees, and kickoff will be at 6:40 p.m. when it’s cooling off.
3. The Eagles need to find a way to get in the end zone
Jay Ajayi had a 17-yard touchdown catch late in the first quarter of Week 16 against the Oakland Raiders. LeGarrette Blount scored a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down against the Atlanta Falcons in the second quarter last week. And that’s it. Those are the only touchdowns the Eagles’ offense has scored the past three games.
And those games weren’t against defenses anywhere near as strong as the Vikings’ D.
The Vikings are arguably the best defense in the NFL. They’re good against the run and the pass. They allowed the fewest points and yards in the NFL this season. The Eagles ran some run-pass options against the Falcons with good success, and that could help avoid long third downs (the Vikings were historically good on third down, allowing 25.2 percent of third-down conversions). Getting a running game going would help Philadelphia, but that’s not guaranteed. It’s hard to figure out a way the Eagles will be able to put up a lot of points. Maybe they could have with Carson Wentz and his improvisation, but the offense understandably hasn’t been as sharp with Nick Foles.
4. Nick Foles, because he hasn’t been that bad
We touched on this in the NFC championship game preview, but Foles hasn’t been quite as bad as advertised. He has been inconsistent. He hasn’t been at the same level of Carson Wentz, or even close. But he has been bad for about only five quarters, and one was in a meaningless Week 17.
If we don’t include Week 16, when Foles and the Eagles struggled, and the meaningless Week 17, here are Foles’ numbers since Wentz tore his ACL: 53-for-78 (67.9 percent), 525 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, 108.1 rating. Not too bad. The Week 16 game against the Raiders happened, and that can’t be ignored. Also, a four-touchdown day against the woeful Giants inflates those numbers. But it’s not like Foles has been horrendous every single game.
That doesn’t mean Foles is going to play great against a tough Vikings defense. But Foles has had some good moments. The Eagles need him to at very least play mistake-free football, and probably need him to make a big play or two.
5. The biggest plays might be fourth downs
Tim McManus of ESPN wrote a great story on the Eagles’ analytic approach to all things. In particular, Philadelphia’s attitude about fourth down was fascinating. The Eagles went for it on fourth down 26 times this regular season, second-most in the NFL. Their 17 fourth-down conversions were the most in the NFL (and they added another last week against Atlanta). For a team that was 13-3 and not in many desperate positions in which it had to go for it, that’s a fun and refreshing approach. Most NFL coaches seem to crave the opportunity to punt on fourth-and-short near midfield, no matter how bad it is.
McManus’ story pointed out the Eagles scored on 13 of the 18 drives (including playoffs) in which they converted a fourth down, and opponents didn’t score once when the Eagles failed to make it on fourth down. Doug Pederson sees the value in going for it on fourth down as the rest of the NFL lags decades behind.
In a close game in which possession will be critical, the Eagles are probably going to go for it in a couple of fourth-and-short situations — we’ll also hear announcers say it’s a gamble, but ignore that. The Vikings allowed a conversion on 39.1 percent of the fourth-downs they faced, which was 12th best in the NFL (the Eagles were tied for first in the NFL allowing 22.2 percent of fourth-down conversions). When the Eagles go for it on fourth down, as they like to do, the results will go a long way in determining who wins.
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