We love to simplify our logic when making predictions. The popular take during the NFL Playoffs is always “take the team with the better quarterback.” Against the Eagles, the logic was apparently as simple as “you can’t win with a backup quarterback.” In a vacuum, these statements make sense, but are blind to the full picture.
That point was made clear this past weekend. Case Keenum, Blake Bortles, and Nick Foles are three of the four winning quarterbacks who have led their team within one game of the Super Bowl – let thank sink in. Neither of those three inspire confidence like their losing counterparts Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, or Ben Roethlisberger – yet it’s those three who will be watching from the couch next weekend.
All week (actually, since Wentz’ injury) I’ve been arguing that if you can control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball you have a chance to win any game, regardless of who’s under center. Philly, Minnesota, and Jacksonville all had top-5 defensive fronts facing off against pliable offensive lines. On the other side, they each had offensive lines that could move the opposing front-sevens. In all three games the lop-sided mismatches at the L.O.S were smack-you-in-the-face obvious, and for some reason pundits and emotional fans couldn’t get past the quarterback comparisons.
But enough ranting about the tallies of opinionists and (either fraud or stupid, I can’t decide) Eagle fans who didn’t give this team a chance. They know who they are, and are probably going to conveniently hop back on the bandwagon this week.
Next Sunday, the Eagles face the second seeded Minnesota Vikings, setting the stage for the ‘Who’s Better Without Bradford Bowl.’ These two teams resemble each other in a lot of ways: both are led by nasty defenses and cast-off quarterbacks who were pressed into action by injury (Keenum in week 2), and both teams rely on strong running games to open up the passing attack. With that in mind, here are a few early observations on this seemingly even matchup:
1. Winning the L.O.S is still key, but isn’t an advantage in this game
I wouldn’t have spent so many words on the importance of winning at the L.O.S if I didn’t intend on bringing it up again. Both teams relied on their mismatches up front to prevail over their NFC South opponents this past weekend but they won’t be able to count on that same advantage this week. Much like the Eagles, Minnesota boasts a top-5 defensive front that stifles most run games. And as I mentioned earlier, they rely heavily on their offensive line and running backs to open up their offense. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these teams’ identities mirror each other, and for that reason I don’t expect the Eagles to own the L.O.S like they have for most of the year. So much of my ‘post-Wentz’ writing has been focused on the running game and defense because that’s where the advantages were for the Birds, but against Minnesota that won’t be the case.
2. There’s one clear advantage in this matchup: Minnesota’s secondary
If there’s a position unit that separates these two nearly identical teams it’s the secondary. While the Eagles defensive backfield has been a major upgrade from seasons past, it’s reasonable to wonder how much the front-seven and pass rush help in that. While Mills, Darby, and Robinson are a clear upgrade from the Nolan Carroll/Bradley Fletcher days, there’s a clear gap between them and the Vikings trio of corners led by first team All-Pro Xavier Rhodes. And while the Birds boast one of the best safety tandems in the league it pales in comparison to the duo of Harrison Smith (another first team All-Pro) and Andrew Sendejo. While it’s true both teams will be evenly matched in the trenches, the Vikings are equipped to load the box with an extra defender if they need to stop the run or get additional pressure. That’s a luxury Jim Schwartz simply won’t have, especially against dynamic receivers in Diggs and Thielen.
3. Because of that edge, one of our playmakers will need to — wait for it — make plays
With the teams virtually even at the L.O.S and no discernable advantage at quarterback it’ll come down to playmakers at the skill positions. In the offseason Howie made what seemed like a key addition in Alshon Jeffrey, only to have him resemble just another boundary receiver as opposed to the true number one he was in the past. Then at midseason, he added Jay Ajayi only to see him fade into the three-man committee at running back. With a healthy Wentz their modest involvement was chalked up to a system dedicated to spreading the ball. With Foles, Eagle fans assumed both would see an increased reliance moving forward, which hasn’t happened. It’ll be vital to get one of these two weapons going against Minnesota. With a secondary led by lockdown corners and bruising safeties, Mike Zimmer isn’t afraid to dial up zero and single high coverage in order to blitz both the run and pass game. If he opts for an aggressive strategy on Sunday (which he will) it’ll be crucial that either Jeffrey wins his one-on-one matchups or Jay Ajayi starts busting off runs we brought him here to. If the Eagles don’t find a matchup to exploit in these situations it’ll be a long day offensively.
With such comparable rosters, both teams will come into Sunday looking to execute similar game plans. The problem for the Eagles is that Minnesota may be slightly better equipped to execute that style of play than the Birds. It’s for that reason that I believe the keys to victory rest with the skill position players more so than before.