And then there were two.
After four and a half months of battling it out amongst the top teams in the NFC, the two that have been atop the conference all year long – the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles – will battle on Sunday, with the winner punching their ticket to the Super Bowl, two weeks from Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The similarities between the two teams run deep, but the most obvious one is that both clubs have had to deal with losing their starting quarterback during the course of the season. Sam Bradford essentially missed all but one game with a knee injury that flared up after the Week 1 win over the Saints, while Carson Wentz, who was possibly heading towards MVP honors, tore his ACL in a Week 14 win against the Rams.
Case Keenum and Nick Foles, who of course were teammates in 2015 with the Rams, have taken over for their respective teams. Foles has made just four starts since Wentz went down, compared to 15 for Keenum, but has played solid in replacing the former North Dakota State star. His standout performance was a Week 15 win against the Giants, where he completed four touchdown passes in leading the Eagles to a come-from-behind win. Last week against the Falcons, he completed 23 of 30 passes for 246 yards with, maybe most importantly, no turnovers as the Eagles pulled off the 15-10 win over the Falcons.
Despite Foles solid play so far this year, the Vikings have talked this week about the need to stop the Eagles rushing attack and putting the game on Foles' shoulders. Philadelphia was third in the NFL in rushing offense this year, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Strength will meet strength as Jay Ajayi and LaGarrette Blount will be going into the teeth of the NFL's second-ranked rush defense, as the Vikings allowed just 83.6 yards per game on the ground.
The Vikings will be without DT Shamar Stephen, who injured his leg and ankle last week against the Saints. 2017 fourth round pick Jaleel Johnson will likely see increased time to go along with starters Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson, but that's something to keep an eye on given the Eagles ability to run the ball so well.
Foles has a trio of very solid wide receivers to try and distribute the ball to, with former Bears star WR Alshon Jeffery being his top target. Jeffery and Xavier Rhodes locked horns several times while both were members of the NFC North, and it will be up to Rhodes to lock down their top target this Sunday.
Veteran speedster Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor will present problems, as will the team's leading receiver, TE Zach Ertz, who caught 74 balls for 824 yards and eight touchdowns. Many of the NFC's top teams relied on throwing the ball to running backs this season, but that wasn't the case for the Eagles, who lost their top pass-catching threat out of the backfield, Darren Sproles, early in the season to injury.
The strength of the Eagles offense lies in their offensive line, which is anchored by RT Lane Johnson, who Head Coach Mike Zimmer sang the praises of on Thursday. C Jason Kelce is another rock, but the Vikings defensive line is going to have to find ways to win those battles.
Offensively for the Vikings, Keenum is going to have to take care of the ball if the Vikings want to have a chance to win this game come the fourth quarter. His interception last Sunday vs. the Saints turned the game around, and with this game being on the road in a hostile environment against a high-end defense, ball security will be at a premium.
Zimmer said this week that he thinks the team that runs the ball the best will win, so that puts pressure on the reworked Vikings offensive line, which will feature Mike Remmers making his second start at left guard between Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein, to move the stacked Eagles defensive line off the ball and create running room for Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. The Eagles have a deep rotation of players along the defensive line that will present problems, especially if the Vikings get behind and are forced into passing situations.
If the Vikings can protect Keenum and give him time to get the ball downfield, the duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are going to need to win battles against Philadelphia's corners and create yardage down the field, which in theory could loosen things up and allow the running game to gain some traction.
Special teams had an up-and-down day last Sunday for the Vikings, with a blocked punt and missed field goal, but then of course Kai Forbath came up huge with two long field goals at the end of the game. That group will need to avoid any major breakdowns this weekend.
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