Vikings, Eagles: What to watch for, and 2 predictions

Jeffrey Bissoy-Mattis and Phil Picardi
MPR News' Jeffrey Bissoy-Mattis and Phil Picardi face off for a photo inside the Kling Public Media Center in St. Paul on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

There's been lots of jawing this week in the MPR Newsroom about the Vikings-Eagles game in Philadelphia. But for a group that loves to make stuff public, only two of us had the guts to put it in writing.

Days after the stunning walk-off touchdown by receiver Stefon Diggs that delivered a Vikings win against the New Orleans Saints, the Vikes face an opponent on Sunday with similar strengths and weaknesses. Here's our look at who wins the NFC Championship — and a trip to the Super Bowl Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.

Jeffrey Bissoy-Mattis

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The Eagles prevailed 15-10 in their divisional playoff contest on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, a team many believed was poised for a consecutive run to the Super Bowl. It was a windy, slippery, back-and-forth contest. Miscues by the Falcons in the second half, together with a tough Philadelphia defense, spelled their demise.

Many analysts counted the Eagles out after starting quarterback, North Dakota native and potential league MVP Carson Wentz went down with a knee injury in week 14 against the Los Angeles Rams.

Despite the loss of Wentz, it's been the Eagles' defense that has kept their Super Bowl ambitions alive. The team showed that against Atlanta.

Key match-ups

Two backup quarterbacks are fighting for the chance to bring home the Super Bowl's Lombardi Trophy. All eyes will be on quarterbacks' Case Keenum and Nick Foles to make big plays for their teams.

Make no mistake, however. The highly anticipated match-up between the top-two teams in the NFC will be a defensive affair. The Vikings and the Eagles boast top-five defenses in the league this year.

The biggest question for either team is, can they put up enough points on the scoreboard to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl?

Vikings' keys to the game

The Vikings need to stop Philadelphia's running game. While Foles looked comfortable throwing the ball against Atlanta, completing 23 of 30 passes for 246 yards, it was the 96 rushing yards from the Eagles' running backs that menaced the Falcons.

The Vikings own the league's best rushing defense. If they can find a way to slow down Jay Ajayi, Nelson Agholor, and LeGarrette Blount (the most dangerous of the three) that will put pressure on Foles to throw more to score, which he was unable to do last weekend.

The Vikings' defense looked out of sorts in the second half, against Drew Brees and co. If they want to #BringitHome, they'll need their defense to be ready to make some big stops.

Eagles' keys to the game

Hopefully, the Eagles took some notes during the Vikings divisional playoff match. The Saints exposed Minnesota's weaknesses on offense and defense in that roller coaster second half. Whatever they did, the Eagles will have to match that energy for 60 minutes on Sunday.

The Eagles absolutely must pressure Keenum. The Vikings' surprise phenom has been pretty good under stress, but he makes mistakes. Take away Keenum's downfield options, squeeze him out of the pocket, and he could make an ill-advised throw, which could result in an interception. One bad throw could be the turning point in a stalemate between two formidable defenses.

Who wins?

I hate to be a homer, but I wholeheartedly believe that the Vikings will get the job done in Philadelphia. They're riding a wave of momentum that the Eagles may not be ready for, and they're motivated to be the first team to play in its home stadium for the Super Bowl. They'll take down the Eagles in convincing fashion, 27-13

Phil Picardi

Sunday's combatants have taken a strikingly similar path to the NFC Championship game. In many ways the Vikings and Eagles are mirror images.

Both teams won 13 games this season and easily won their divisions. Both teams rely on punishing defenses. Both teams like to run the ball. And, both teams are led by backup quarterbacks. Oddly, both of those quarterbacks couldn't win a permanent starting job with the old St. Louis Rams.

Keenum vs. Foles?

Vikings quarterback Case Keenum's story is well known. With Teddy Bridgewater recovering from surgery, the Vikings signed Keenum as insurance before the start of the season. Then, starter Sam Bradford aggravated a knee injury and Keenum has played ever since. Keenum has played so well his name is frequently mentioned when the conversation turns to league most valuable player.

Nick Foles will quarterback the Eagles on Sunday. He was signed by the team to back up former North Dakota State University star Carson Wentz. But when Wentz went down with a season-ending knee injury in mid-December, Foles was pressed into service.

Foles does have a brief history of success in the NFL. He went to the Pro Bowl quarterbacking the Eagles in 2013. During that season, he was the first quarterback in NFL history to post a perfect passer rating and throw seven touchdown passes in a single game. His 2014 season was shortened by a broken collarbone, and the following year he was traded to St. Louis.

Like Keenum, the Rams stint didn't work out for Foles, and after a short tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs, Foles decided to return to Philadelphia and try to revive his NFL career.

With Wentz and Foles, Philadelphia scored the third most points per game in the NFL this season and finished seventh in total offense. With Bradford and Keenum, the Vikings were above average offensively, finishing 10th in the NFL in points per game and 11th in total yards.

The defenses won't rest

While each offense is good, the defenses are top notch. The Vikings had the best defense in the league, allowing the fewest points and the fewest yards per game during the season. The Eagles defense was nearly as stout. They were the fourth-best defense in the NFL in both points and yards allowed per game.

With strong defenses and backup quarterbacks, analysts expect a low-scoring NFC title game.

The Vikings hope the result doesn't come down to home field advantage. The Eagles have treated opponents roughly in their home stadium, and the Vikings have allowed 4 more points per game on the road. Also, two of the three Vikings losses occurred outdoors on natural grass. Sunday's game is outdoors on natural grass at Lincoln Financial Field.

The Eagles own historical post-season success against the Vikings. The Eagles are 3-0 against the Vikings in playoff games. The last time the two teams met in a win-or-go-home game, the Eagles beat the Vikings at the Metrodome in 2008.

Who wins?

The Eagles front seven is stronger than the Saints front seven. Philly safety Malcolm Jennings won't whiff on Stefon Diggs with time running out.

Eagles at home win it 16-13.

Jeffrey Bissoy-Mattis is an assistant producer for MPR News and was a research fellow for APM Reports. Phil Picardi is a newscaster for MPR News who admits to watching too much football.