It’s a huge game. There’s no other way to look at it. The Philadelphia Eagles will host the Minnesota Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday (Fox 29, 6:40 p.m.) for the NFC Championship.
The winner heads to the Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.
As the stakes get bigger, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has worked hard to keep his team focused on the task at hand.
“I think we’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Pederson said. “The guys are going to prepare themselves the way they have all season long. It’s obviously a great honor, a great opportunity faced in front of us. You just have to stay grounded in the moment.”
In the victory over the Atlanta Falcons, the Eagles’ offense led by running backs Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount helped set the tone for quarterback Nick Foles and the passing game.
The ground attack kept Foles in short passing situations where he didn’t have to throw the football down the field for big plays. The veteran quarterback was also able to get into a good rhythm throwing the football.
“The quick, short passing game obviously can help,” Pederson said.
“The running game can help. Somewhere in there, if you can take a shot, you take a shot and whether you hit, like the first play of the game. If you hit it or not, that kind of gets your blood flowing a little bit. And sometimes even tempo, hurry-up, no-huddle offense can get your quarterback into that kind of rhythm,” he added.
On the other hand, the Vikings have the No. 1 defense in the league. Minnesota’s defense has a number of playmakers such as linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith.
However, a key player in Sunday’s game could be Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen who has 45 total tackles, but also 13 sacks. Eagles offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai will have the responsibility of keeping him away from Foles.
“It’s a lot of respect for him,” Pederson said. “And you’ve got to be smart and you’ve got to know that that position, he can change the ball game.”
The Eagles’ offensive line has been good this season, despite losing All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters. According to Football Outsiders, the team is ranked 12th in the NFL in pass protection.
“So we’re going to be smart and we’re going to understand. He knows that tight ends are going to help over there, backs are going to help over there, slide protection. It’s nothing that’s — it’s not rocket science,” Pederson added.
The Eagles head coach, however, has a lot of confidence in the second-year left tackle.
“But Big V [Halapoulivaati Vaitai] has had a challenge all season. We’ve faced some tremendous defensive ends all season long and this will be his greatest challenge in this game. But I have a lot of confidence in V and what he’s done this season.”
The Vikings had a thrilling victory over the New Orleans Saints last Sunday to advance into Sunday’s contest. Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum hit wide receiver Stefon Diggs with a 61-yard game-winning touchdown reception.
Keenum will look for Diggs along with Vikings’ leading receiver Adam Thielen. Pederson is well aware of Minnesota’s offensive talents, which starts with the quarterback.
“I just think the efficiency of the offense,” Pederson said. “[Vikings quarterback] Case [Keenum] is playing extremely well. He’s not turning the ball over. The whole season’s been sort of built on the run game, a little bit of play action, putting him on the perimeter. He’s an athletic quarterback.”
Defensively, the Eagles will have to get some pressure on Keenum with their pass rushers Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox. In the secondary, safety Malcolm Jenkins will provide a lot of experience and leadership.
Pederson knows Jenkins value as a veteran in terms of leading the defense.
“I think he’s embraced it,” Pederson said. “I think now the guys embrace it. I don’t necessarily say Malcolm, break the team down or talk to the team. I think it’s just him being Malcolm and being a leader of this football team, and being one of the guys that they look to for that leadership.”
Sound football play on both sides of the ball as well as experience and leadership will tell the story in this big matchup.