Coming off of a miracle finish against the New Orleans Saints and with a home field Super Bowl awaiting on the horizon, the tables were set for the Vikings to be a team of destiny. All that stood in their way was the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. But in classic Vikings fashion, they fell flat on their faces in every aspect.
Aside from a strong opening drive, Minnesota never got into a rhythm offensively. But that was not the story of the game. No, the story was the NFL’s best defense getting picked apart by Nick Foles.
Let’s take a look at how it all went down.
Factors of Failure
The Philly Faithful
First and foremost, Eagles fans had Lincoln Financial Field rocking from start to finish. Home field advantage is a factor in playoff games, and this game was a prime example of that. This Philadelphia fanbase is loud, rowdy and they love their football team. Minnesota was at an emotional disadvantage from the start.
Case Under Pressure
Keenum’s 5.1 rating when under pressure last week seemed like a fluke after he posted an NFL-best 58.5 such rating in the regular season. However, the Eagles exploited Keenum’s inconsistency once again. Keenum was under pressure on nearly half of his dropbacks (24-of-50), and was 11-for-22 with 108 yards and an interception when pressured, a rating of 45.3. The interception came as a result of his arm being hit, but even so, the pocket composure that he featured throughout the regular season was not to be found yesterday.
Of course, a fair amount of blame goes the line’s way for allowing so much pressure. Keenum’s mobility prevented sacks as he took only one on the day. But he was never comfortable in the pocket. And the pressure came from all sides; Derek Barnett and Chris Long had huge games on the edges and Fletcher Cox was dominant inside with six pressures.
In the regular season, Minnesota was plus-five in turnover differential, having lost only six fumbles and eight interceptions. The Philadelphia defense was a takeaway machine this year, finishing top-five in that category. Something had to give. Unfortunately for Minnesota, it was the offense that gave.
Case Keenum had three turnovers in this game: two interceptions and a strip sack. Although one interception was tipped and a strip sack is not necessarily the fault of the quarterback, it still goes as a blemish on his statline. The strip sack was particularly key as the Vikings were moving the ball well into the red zone. After the fumble, the Vikings never threatened again.
Third Down Defense
It is the headline that nobody saw coming: The Vikings’ lauded third down defense was shredded the entire game. The historic Mike Zimmer third down defense that allowed just a 25 percent success rate in the regular season allowed 10 first downs on 14 third down attempts. That is nearly three times their regular season rate.
Going hand-in-hand with this was the inability to cover Zach Ertz on third downs. Ertz did not reach the end zone but he did plenty of damage as he hauled in eight catches for 93 yards. Five of those eight receptions were for first downs, four of which were on third down. What is worse is that Harrison Smith, the Vikings’ most consistent defender, spent the majority of the game matched up with Ertz. Yet even he struggled to contain the Eagles’ tight end.
There is a host of Pro Bowl quarterbacks that the Vikings contained this year. It was their gimmick; a dominant secondary, a consistent pass rush and linebackers who could cover or blitz. They shut down some of the league’s premier offenses with this unit. And Foles picked them apart.
Foles had the game of his life, throwing for 352 yards and three touchdowns for a 141.4 rating. Simply put, he could not be stopped, especially when throwing deep. Regular season-Nick Foles was two of 15 when throwing for 20-plus yards. NFC Championship game-Nick Foles was four of six on such throws, totaling 172 yards, two touchdowns and a rating of 149.3.
The Eagles eliminated the Vikings’ run game early, so McKinnon was not a major factor there. He finished with just 40 yards on 10 carries. Where McKinnon really shined was the pass game, leading the team in receptions with 11, yards with 86 and targets with 12. He showed his typical elusiveness, picking up yards when the play seemed doomed. In what may be his final game as a Viking, McKinnon made his case for a nice contract.
Hunter was even further under the radar, as he was part of an awful defensive performance. But Hunter was the lone bright spot, contributing more than a third of the team’s pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. He also recorded a sack and five run stops to lead the team.
The Vikings remain among the NFC’s elite and should stay there for awhile. While there are free agency question marks, most of their cornerstones are young and under contract. The biggest question of the offseason will be who ends up at quarterback in 2018; Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater are all unrestricted free agents.
The bad news is that Pat Shurmur is reportedly taking the Giants’ head coaching job. Shurmur excelled this year with Keenum, turning a somewhat patchwork, injured unit into a top-ten scorer. As such, the offensive coordinator hire will be Minnesota’s most important as they potential transition into a new quarterback era.
Add all this up and you have a some major question marks as to how this team will look next season. But with question brings optimism, excitement and hope. Sure, the Eagles are not going anywhere, but neither are the Vikings. And with an unexpected run like this year’s in the rear view, 2018 brings a strange new word to Vikings fans:
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