Five Reasons The NFC Championship Game Is A Fascinating Matchup

Conference Championship Sunday is almost here, and with its impending arrival, there are no shortage of storylines. While there’s plenty of intrigue to be found in both matchups, the NFC game between the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles is particularly loaded. Let’s explore some of the factors shaping the narrative around this game.

The quarterback situation

The quarterback situation for each team is (fairly) being viewed very differently, despite the fact that both teams are using backup quarterbacks.

For Philadelphia, Nick Foles will be under center after taking over for an injured Carson Wentz during Week 14’s game against the Rams. Foles has led the Eagles to a 3-1 record, including last week’s win over the Falcons in the Divisional Round. In his three regular season starts to end the season, he threw for 439 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. Against the Falcons last week, he completed 23 of 30 passes for 246 yards, though with zero touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Poor performances in the final two weeks of the regular season sent any remaining confidence in the Eagles from the public and the media plummeting. Foles was able to do enough against the Falcons to help Philadelphia advance, but his performance did little to inspire confidence that he could lead the team to the promised land. He finds himself under the microscope again this week, as the debate rages as to exactly what Foles needs to do to get the Eagles to the Super Bowl.

For the Vikings, it’s Case Keenum, who stepped in for an injured Sam Bradford. Normally, two backup quarterbacks squaring off in a conference title game would dominate the narrative. The only reason that the quarterback situation is not THE narrative heading into this game is the fact that Keenum took over for Bradford very early in the season, quarterbacking virtually the Vikings’ entire run, and instilling at least a semblance of confidence in the process. While technically a backup, he’s not being viewed that way at this point.

Keenum has performed admirably, leading the Vikings to a 12-3 record, including last week’s win over the Saints. Along the way, he compiled 3,547 yards to go with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He added another 318 yards plus a touchdown and an interception in the playoff win over New Orleans.

While each team’s respective quarterback situation is being viewed differently, neither player was expected to be ‘the man’ heading into the 2017 season. Sunday’s game will mark the first conference title game to feature a matchup of quarterbacks who weren’t the Week 1 starter.

A final interesting tidbit on the quarterbacks in the NFC Championship Game: both Foles and Keenum escaped the NFL purgatory that is quarterbacking for Jeff Fisher (somewhere Jared Goff is smiling). Each took a turn under center for Fisher with the Rams. This will be the fifth time in the last 30 years that former QB teammates meet in the playoffs.

How times change. From former teammates to adversaries in the NFC title game. (Mark Zaleski, AP)

Eagles are home dogs… again

Last week, the Eagles were hit with a historic slap in the face when they were tabbed by sportsbooks as home underdogs as a No. 1 seed in the Divisional Round. This week, it’s more of the same, as the NFL odds for conference championship Sunday have again pegged the Eagles as home dogs.

The not-so-subtle dig a week ago served as a rallying cry for the Eagles and their fans, and will likely do so again on Sunday. After right tackle Lane Johnson and defensive end Chris Long donned dog masks following last week’s victory, the masks promptly sold out on Amazon. Eagles management has decided to loosen its policies on entry to the stadium, allowing fans to wear the masks. It could make for an interesting scene in Philadelphia.

So which is really the ‘team of destiny’?

Terms like ‘destiny’ often work their way into the discussion as sports seasons inch towards crowning a champion. What makes this matchup interesting in this regard is the fact that both teams feel they have a claim to the ‘team of destiny’ moniker this year.

For the Vikings, the connection is obvious. Their walk-off touchdown to beat the Saints a week ago immediately takes a place in NFL lore. To call it miraculous wouldn’t be a stretch. Everything that had to go right on that final play did go right, and the Vikings escaped a frenzied final three minutes to reach the NFC Championship Game. It’s easy to see why the Vikings feel smiled upon by some greater power.

A word of warning to Vikings fans: sometimes the miraculous play does more to use up a team’s divine intervention than it does to serve as a sign of being chosen. Just ask the Eagles. After they converted a nearly impossible 4th-and-26 against the Packers in the 2004 playoffs, there was plenty of “destiny” talk. That team’s season ended the following week, a game short of the Super Bowl.

The Eagles’ claim to destiny is more subtle. In addition to the loss of MVP candidate Wentz, the Eagles lost versatile running back and return man Darren Sproles, linebacker Jordan Hicks, kicker Caleb Sturgis, special teams ace Chris Maragos, and future HOF left tackle Jason Peters. (Yes, the Vikings had injuries too.) Somehow, the Eagles just kept rolling, all the way into this Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

In addition, the Eagles may have gotten some supernatural help of their own in beating the Falcons. There wasn’t a standout play, but the Eagles put the ball on the ground four times in the first 20 minutes of the game. They lost two of those fumbles, and finished -2 in turnover margin. Oh, and the Falcons had the ball on the Eagles’ two yard line with a chance to win the game. A ton of credit goes to the defense, but maybe there was some invisible help as well.

Finally, the story of the Eagles’ season parallels perfectly with that of the city it represents. Overlooked, underappreciated, counted out. Grind over glamour. What better team to deliver Philadelphia its first Super Bowl than this one?

A ‘two-faced’ Vikings’ defense

Minnesota has an elite defense. In fact, it had the number one ranked defense in the regular season. The Vikes finished second against both the rush the pass. Everson Griffen has been an absolute monster, registering 13 sacks. Harrison Smith grabbed five interceptions from his safety spot. We could dedicate an entire post to the Vikings defense, but let’s just acknowledge that it’s a beast unit and move on.

But the defense has been a different entity on the road, ranking 8th. Still very good, but not the devastating force it has been at home. The biggest difference has been on the ground, as the Vikings give up roughly 30 more rushing yards per game. This game happens to be on the road, and the Eagles happen to have had the third-best rushing attack in the NFL this season.

Okay, maybe calling the Vikings’ defense ‘two-faced’ was a stretch, but you get the point.

Defenses figure to play a major role in Sunday’s game, and whether the Vikings get the elite home version or the “only” very good road version could end up being the difference for Minnesota.

By the way, Philly has a pretty good defense, too

While the Vikings’ defense was destroying opponents and Carson Wentz was garnering much of the attention surrounding Philadelphia, the Eagles’ defense was putting up its own impressive numbers. It finished the season ranked 4th overall and 1st against the run.

The defensive line has been a force, while a relatively inexperienced secondary has held up fairly well, despite some occasional breakdowns. It’s the defense that has allowed the Eagles to succeed with Foles serving as game manager.

Sunday will be no different, and a trip to the Super Bowl could come down to which defense makes more big plays.

Two quarterbacks who started the season as backups and who were once teammates. Two elite defenses. Two teams that each feel that destiny is on their side. And a team who feels historically disrespected, backed by a fanbase who’s embrace of that disrespect is only surpassed by its hunger for a Super Bowl win. Sunday’s NFC Championship Game is flooded with story lines and holds the potential to be an epic battle. The only thing left to do is choose your side and enjoy the show.

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