EAGAN, Minn. — By the time December rolls around, a handful of NFC teams will have likely separated themselves in the race for the playoffs.
There's a good chance the Vikings and Eagles will be among those teams in the thick of the playoff race, making Sunday's game all the more important.
Both Minnesota and Philadelphia enter Week 6 at 3-2, and each have a pair of conference wins.
Does this game feel like a playoff game, or at least a potential matchup in the postseason?
"This one is real big," said safety Jayron Kearse. "Every game in the NFL is big, but everyone knows that some games are bigger than others.
"This is a big one, just for the simple fact that we have a chance to do something right now, rather than wait later in the season to try and get that done," Kearse said. "You saw how last season ended, with us being one game away from being in [the playoffs]. This is big for us to keep the momentum going so that when we get to the back end of the season, November and December, we can just relax and play football. Right now, we have to go take care of business."
Sunday marks the fourth straight season, including the playoffs, that Minnesota and Philadelphia have met. The previous three meetings have been in Philadelphia.
The Vikings would obviously prefer to be at U.S. Bank Stadium in any possible playoff game, especially against Philadelphia.
A win Sunday would improve those odds, and keep the Vikings on pace to be a factor in the final month of the season.
Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:
Stop the Eagles on 3*rd*down | By @Eric_L_Smith
The Eagles boast the league's second-best offense on third downs, as Philadelphia has converted 37 of 70 tries (52.86 percent) so far in 2019.
A look at the stats shows the Eagles are more apt to move the chains through the air, as 27 of those 37 conversions have come on passes.
But good luck figuring out who Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is going to look for. Here's a breakdown of Philadelphia's 27 third-down conversions through the air this season:
TE Zach Ertz: 7 catches
WR Nelson Agholor: 6 catches
WR DeSean Jackson: 5 catches
WR Alshon Jeffrey: 4 catches
WR Mack Hollins: 4 catches
RB Darren Sproles: 1 catch
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Defensive Coordinator George Edwards described the challenge of going against Philadelphia's multitude of weapons.
"They really change a lot from week to week, so it's hard to get a good nab on them," Zimmer said. "They've got really good players. Ertz is a great player, I think the quarterback feels really good about his opportunities with him.
"Then they got 17 [Jeffery] on the outside, who is a tough matchup all the time. DeSean Jackson, they've got good backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield," Zimmer added. "Sometimes they'll get in two tight end personnel and use [tight end Dallas] Goedert in there. It's a lot of weapons. 13 [Agholor], he's a good player."
Added Edwards: "It's a combination of the personnel and schematically what they do from week to week. They change up a lot. There's not a consistent evidence of, 'You're going to get this, you're going to get that.' They do a really nice job in their third-down package."
The Vikings will counter with a third-down defense that ranks ninth in the NFL with an allowed third-down rate of 34.85 percent.
Facing familiar foes | By @LindseyMNSports
Vikings defenders, especially those who have been with the team for some time, are plenty familiar with two of Philadelphia's offensive weapons. They're a little less familiar with them in Eagles colors, however.
Running back Jordan Howard and Jeffery both spent the beginning of their careers in Chicago, during which they faced Minnesota twice a year. Jeffery played five seasons with the Bears before signing with the Eagles in 2017; Howard, a 2016 fifth-round draft pick by Chicago, is in his first season in Philadelphia.
Both have done some damage against the Vikings over the years.
In six games against the Vikings, Howard has 116 carries for 545 yards and three touchdowns. His next-highest yardage total against any one team is 448 in five games against Green Bay. So far this season, Howard has 248 yards and four touchdowns for Philadelphia.
"He's very physical; he's got really good feet," Zimmer said of Howard this week. "He runs with his pads forward, so you make contact with him on second-and-8, and it ends up being second-and-4. So, we're going to have to do a great job tackling him, being in the right place, and getting extra hats on the ball. He's a physical, physical runner."
Jeffery has put up good performances against Minnesota as a receiver for the Bears and the Eagles. Over 10 games, he has totaled 47 catches for 724 yards (15.4 average) and seven touchdowns.
Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes has often covered Jeffery, who was drafted one year before Minnesota selected Rhodes in 2013.
"Alshon Jeffery is pretty aggressive," Rhodes told Twin Cities media members this week. "[He] has always been aggressive. He's going to go up and get the ball, push off out of his breaks. … We just have to go out there and play football."
Another chess match | By @pcraigers
Zimmer and a defense that's allowed 28 points in five second halves this season will face a team led by a head coach from an offensive background for the fifth consecutive week.
The chess match between Eagles Head Coach Doug Pederson and Zimmer and Co. could be a good one.
The squads met in the regular season in 2016, Pederson's first year at the helm, in the 2017 NFC Championship and last October.
Zimmer expects Pederson to be aggressive in critical moments and creative in trying to create advantages.
"He's a guy that's going to go for it on fourth down, 2-point [conversions]," Zimmer said. "I think he does a really good job of trying to use his personnel the best way he can and trying to get you in situations where maybe you're weaker. He's good."
Zimmer has also noted Wentz's ability to run the offense from the shotgun formation and make checks at the line of scrimmage, which is why he wants the home crowd "really cranked up for this one," and make plays after the snap.
We asked Zimmer this week, if it is possible to set traps by disguising coverages, essentially guiding an offense toward checking into what the defense wants run.
"Sometimes. There's lots of different ways to do it — you can look at the play clock, you can hold the shell, you can line up in something and move back out," Zimmer said. "There's a lot of different ways to do it. The two safeties we've got are pretty good at doing that."
Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris have developed a great chemistry not dissimilar from what Smith had with current Eagles safety Andrew Sendejo, and linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have been skilled at bluffing and blitzing.
— Dalvin Cook has already racked up 542 rushing yards and five touchdowns, but he's also a threat in the passing game. Entering Sunday's game against Philadelphia, Cook leads the Vikings with 21 catches, totaling 200 yards through the air.
— Safety Harrison Smith leads the Vikings through five games with seven passes defensed. Against the Eagles last season, Smith recorded a pass defensed, four tackles and a quarterback hit.
— Vikings kicker Dan Bailey won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for Week 5 after he made four field goals and two extra points against the Giants. He has 91 career points against the Eagles. Having spent his first eight NFL seasons in the NFC East (Cowboys), he is 20-of-23 (87 percent) in field goals against Philadelphia and 31-of-32 on PAT attempts
— Minnesota and Philadelphia will face off in the 29th all-time contest between the franchises. The Vikings currently lead the regular-season series 14-10 but are 0-4 against the Eagles in the postseason.
"Big challenge this week. Philadelphia is an excellent football team. We're going to need this place as loud as it's ever been."
— Zimmer on needing a loud crowd on Sunday
Upcoming: The end of the road in NFC North
The Vikings are back on the road in Week 7 for a game against the Lions. The tilt wraps up Minnesota's road division slate, as the Vikings have already played Chicago and Green Bay on the road.
The Vikings have won three of the past four matchups at Ford Field.
The second half of Minnesota's schedule is backloaded with home games against NFC North foes. The Vikings host the Lions in Week 14, the Packers in Week 16 and the Bears in Week 17.