NFC Championship Preview 2018
by Scott Kacsmar
If you asked anyone this summer for their predictions on which two teams would appear in this NFC Championship Game, then you would have heard a lot of the usual suspects: Green Bay, Seattle, Dallas, and Atlanta. But the 2017 NFC never cared about following conventional wisdom. That's why the Eagles, Vikings, Saints, and Rams won the divisions after none of those teams even had a winning record in 2016, the first time that has happened in either conference since realignment in 2002. This is the first conference championship game since Giants-49ers in 2011 where both teams did not qualify for the postseason in the previous year.
If you asked anyone in October or November to predict the NFC Championship Game, then you might have heard some mentions of the Eagles and Vikings. They were off to good starts, though Minnesota's situation was a little shakier after losing quarterback Sam Bradford and rookie running back Dalvin Cook to injuries. Case Keenum couldn't keep playing well all year, could he? Well, he only ended up leading the league in passing DVOA, and he just threw one of the most memorable game-winning touchdowns in NFL history, so he has that on his resume now. Still, the mere presence of Keenum had people overlooking the Vikings in favor of more attractive options such as New Orleans (Drew Brees with a running back duo and defense) and Los Angeles (several likely award winners headlined by Sean McVay, but only 13 points at home to the Falcons). In the end, the Vikings finished with a win in Atlanta, a 24-7 win over the Rams, and a sweep of the Saints.
Yet many probably would have thought the Eagles still had the NFC's best team right up until Carson Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14. Enter Nick Foles, and now the Eagles had their own weird backup quarterback situation. While Keenum thrived with 28.2% passing DVOA, Foles' mark of -28.5% DVOA would only finish ahead of Cleveland's atrocious rookie DeShone Kizer if he qualified for our rankings. This might be the least likely quarterback matchup for the NFC title since grocery bagger Kurt Warner met green rookie Shaun King in 1999. (And yes, Bert Emanuel, we still don't know what a catch is.) According to NFL Network, this is the first conference title game since the merger where neither quarterback was a Week 1 starter.
So we are left with the two best teams in the right matchup, but Jeff Fisher's Bastards of Young are the replacements for a Bradford vs. Wentz rematch that would have its own interesting storylines. When these teams met in 2016 with those quarterbacks, the result was a true mess of a game, a 21-10 win by the Eagles in Philadelphia that featured nine total fumbles (five lost) and three interceptions. To illustrate just how irrelevant that game is this week and how fast things change in the NFL, consider that the game's leading rushers (Matt Asiata and Ryan Mathews) and leading receivers (Cordarrelle Patterson and Josh Huff) were not on the Eagles or Vikings this season.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. (Game charting isn't lined up with DVOA yet in our data, so a lot of those stats will have passer rating or other numbers listed.) Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
This week, we're breaking out separate charts for offensive and defensive DVOA each week. The defensive charts are "reversed" so that better games are still higher on the chart even though they have negative DVOA. In the Philadelphia offensive chart, games started by Nick Foles are colored black instead of gray.
Minnesota at Philadelphia
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WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
I am a firm believer in a team's weakness usually being part of its downfall in the postseason. It is hard to cover up that flaw against one of the best teams in the league. Having said that, there was a nugget in last week's Saints-Vikings preview that makes me feel really bad for New Orleans. As Vincent Verhei pointed out, the Saints finished 2017 with the fewest missed tackles on defense. Yet the everlasting moment of their season is the missed tackle by safety Marcus Williams on the incredible touchdown by Stefon Diggs. We know Diggs is good, but that play was just an incredible failure of defense in a moment where any tackle in bounds would have ended the game.
Minnesota fans know just how fortunate they were to escape with that win, and Vikings analysts also knew going into the game that this was not the offense you would trust to make a game-breaking third-and-long conversion. As Arif Hasan pointed out hours before the miracle play, the Vikings did not get good efficiency out of Case Keenum on third-and-long this season. Our numbers also support this. While the Vikings were fifth overall in third-down offense, they were just 24th in DVOA on third-and-long, a situation that often depends on a quarterback to throw down the field without the use of play-action. That's not to say Keenum's success was built heavily on play-action passing, but the Vikings did use it 26 percent of the time this season, second to only the Rams (28 percent). They ranked seventh in yards per play with play-action (8.7), but dropped to 14th without it (6.4). That's why it will be really important for the Eagles to win the early downs and force Keenum into those predictable passing situations where he really just relies on two standout receivers (Diggs and Adam Thielen).
Much has been said about that Philadelphia run defense, which allowed the fewest yards in the league and had the second-highest stuffed run rate. Some of those numbers are skewed because of favorable game scripts. Philadelphia's average defensive drive came with a lead of 6.03 points, third highest in 2017. Teams usually had to abandon the run against the Eagles, but that hasn't been the case in recent weeks. This game should be close enough to where the Vikings don't abandon it either, and Latavius Murray has consistently received 15 to 20 carries since taking over for Dalvin Cook.
Early downs should be a fun part of the chess match between Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. The Eagles were No. 1 in DVOA on first down where the Vikings were 10th at passing and only 20th at rushing. On second down, things switch with the Vikings ranked second in passing and the Eagles just 21st on defense. So the Vikings may want to take some shots on early downs to avoid getting Keenum into those tough third-and-longs where the Eagles ranked 11th on defense.
Pass pressure expects to be huge in this one. Keenum actually had the NFL's highest QBR under pressure (58.5) this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. He was dead last in QBR under pressure (6.5) while with the Rams in 2016. Keenum's early-season sack avoidance -- he took one total sack in Weeks 5 to 11 -- hasn't been there lately. He has good mobility, but he has gone down for multiple sacks in each of his last seven games. While he got some of the playoff jitters out of the way last week, Keenum's performance under pressure left much to be desired. He forced a terrible interception late in the third quarter that helped the Saints get back in the game. He cannot make that mistake on the road in what should be a lower-scoring game.
Protection could be a problem too. According to Sports Info Solutions charting, the Vikings had the third-most plays with blown blocks this year. The Eagles have a strong defensive line that helped the defense to the eighth-highest pressure rate (32.5 percent) this season. Chris Long (35.0), Vinny Curry (28.5), Fletcher Cox (28.5), and Brandon Graham (27.0) all had at least 27 pressures this season, according to Sports Info Solutions. Quarterbacks love to get rid of the ball quickly against the Eagles, and that would be wise for Keenum to follow. The Eagles actually allowed the third-most YAC per reception (5.8 yards) according to ESPN Stats & Info, so getting the ball out quickly to playmakers such as Diggs, Thielen, and even tight end Kyle Rudolph should be the order of the day.
Thielen especially becomes a great target for Keenum under pressure, because he can make tough, contested catches. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Thielen led the NFL with 40 targets and 397 receiving yards while his quarterback was under pressure this year. Diggs also can make tough catches in tight windows, so look for cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby to have their hands full with this duo. Still, the Eagles should consider using more double-teams and man coverage to deal with the heart of this passing game in Diggs and Thielen. According to Sports Info Solutions, Keenum was much better against zone defenses, posting a70 percent completion rate compared to 58 percent against man coverage. In man coverage, the Eagles were strong, allowing 51 percent completions with just 6.0 yards per attempt and a 73.0 passer rating.
Philadelphia's best strategy could be to chill with the blitzes and see if Keenum will force some tight throws to covered receivers. Minnesota failed to score more than 14 points in the only three Keenum starts where defenses blitzed him less than 20 percent of the time. While Teddy Bridgewater favored the throwaway and Sam Bradford eternally loves his checkdowns, Keenum can be a wild gunslinger when he's pressured.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Back in Week 7, the Eagles beat Washington, 34-24, on Monday Night Football in what might have been the best game Carson Wentz has had in the NFL. Not only did he have the four touchdown passes, but he made some great throws (short and long) under pressure, and pulled a little magic trick to get out of another sack. With the Eagles at 6-1, this was starting to look like the new team to beat.
Then things changed for the Philadelphia offense. Left tackle Jason Peters was lost for the season in that Week 7 game. The Eagles surprised everyone by acquiring running back Jay Ajayi in a trade from the Dolphins right at the deadline. Then Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14, bringing Nick Foles back in the spotlight to Eagles fans.
Think about those significant changes for a second. We had almost a half season of data on an offense with Wentz and Peters, and without Ajayi. Now that's all changed, and we're left with a fine game (for the offense) against the Giants, a horrific performance against Oakland, a preseason-style exhibition against Dallas in Week 17, and last week's close shave against the Falcons.
Like with most things involving Foles' career, I'm just not sure what to make of this and what to expect next. If you told Eagles fans in January 2014 that they would be in this NFC Championship Game with Foles, they would have believed it. Plenty of NFL fans would have, in fact. It's just that we would have also expected Chip Kelly to be the head coach instead of the guy who started the 1999 season at quarterback, and Carson Wentz would be irrelevant instead of worshiped in Philadelphia.
Foles, with stops in St. Louis, Kansas City, and the bench, took about the oddest path possible to get to this game, but here he is with a chance to take the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Here is a stat that is more amusing than anything: Foles is the first quarterback in NFL history to have a 100-plus passer rating in his first two playoff starts (minimum 30 attempts). Brett Favre, Steve Young, Warren Moon, Donovan McNabb, and Ben Roethlisberger all have two such games in their playoff careers. Roethlisberger actually didn't have his second until last Sunday against Jacksonville, so Foles beat him to No. 2 on Saturday. That says a lot about the era Foles plays in, and also that he was able to throw a ball right at an Atlanta defender and still get a 20-yard completion on a lucky bounce.
But doesn't that fact also suggest that Foles may not be in over his head with this playoff run? No matter how much credit you want to give him versus the scheme for his stellar 2013 stats, that was a better season than many quarterbacks have had in this league. Foles is much more accomplished at this stage of his career than Jeff Hostetler was when he took over for Phil Simms on the 1990 Giants and that team still won the Super Bowl. Granted, that team needed a Roger Craig fumble in San Francisco and a missed field goal by Buffalo's Scott Norwood to win it all, but Hostetler wasn't the first or last quarterback to receive some luck on his way to a title. Why can't it happen for Foles with home-field advantage and the benefit of a sound defense and supporting cast?
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Foles might need some breaks again this week, because Minnesota's defense is very tough. The Vikings have Pro Bowlers at every level and two All-Pros (Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith) in the secondary. While the Eagles have a group of productive pass rushers, the Vikings rely more heavily on Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, who both notched 40 hurries this year. Griffen had a career-high 13 sacks and could be the right player to exploit Peters' backup Halapoulivaati Vaitai. It's a small sample size, but Foles has not fared well under pressure. According to Sports Info Solutions, Foles has only completed 17 of his 41 passes under pressure, and his 51.8 passer rating would rank 34th this season. Wentz's playmaking ability to get out of trouble and throw the ball down the field helped the Eagles to the highest DVOA on third-and-long, but those advantages are just not there with Foles. Doug Pederson has to scheme around his limitations to manufacture big plays now, and a few run-pass options that gain 10 to 12 yards will only work for so long before the Vikings figure things out.
Early on against Atlanta, drawing pass interference on a bad throw seemed to be Foles' best trick, but he calmed down as the game wore on and actually started converting his third downs to lead some long scoring drives in the second half. He'll need to do that again, but the Vikings had the lowest third-down conversion rate (25.2 percent) of any defense since 1991, so good luck there.
There's really not a glaring weakness to the Minnesota defense. It ranks in the top five against the pass and the run, and it ranks in the top 10 against top two wideouts, receiving backs, and tight ends. Minnesota tackles well, ranking second against short passes, and allowing the fewest yards after contact per run in the league according to ESPN. The Vikings defend the big plays well, ranking 10th against deep passes. Minnesota forced a three-and-out on 29.3 percent of drives this year, ranked third in the NFL. Offenses punted on 49.4 percent of their drives against Minnesota, the second-highest rate in 2017. The Vikings were also third at allowing points and touchdowns in red-zone opportunities.
In short, this defense does a fantastic job of limiting big plays, winning third downs, and getting the opposing offense off the field quickly. The only real issue is that the Vikings ranked 22nd in takeaways per drive. We know so many playoff games, especially those involving teams who go on to win the Super Bowl, swing on a huge turnover. However that might be the one thing that's lacking in this defense.
Like with the other matchup, this should be a game where Minnesota plays man defense to make Foles beat them with his arm. Minnesota was statistically the top pass defense in man coverage this season, according to Sports Info Solutions. The Vikings allowed six touchdowns to 11 interceptions and a passer rating of 60.0 in man coverage. They only allowed 5.7 yards per attempt in man coverage, which is what Foles' average has been against man in his limited playing time this year. That's rarely ever going to win a playoff game.
Rhodes should be very familiar with Alshon Jeffery, who used to face the Vikings twice a year when he was with Chicago. He may not have been everything the Eagles hoped for this year, but he's still the best all-around receiver in this offense. In six games against Mike Zimmer's defense, Jeffery had 54 yards in three games in Minnesota compared to 314 yards in three home games. That's an odd little split, but the Vikings won't fear putting Rhodes on Jeffery for this one. Torrey Smith running a deep route to draw pass interference on Trae Waynes could end up being the Eagles' longest gain in this game. It's worth a shot at least.
Like Keenum, Foles has to play it safe and remember that sacks and punts are okay in this one. It's a different plan than what the Eagles were doing with Wentz this year, but a good coach has to adjust to the players he has available. Pederson has been able to do that so far this season, but this is the biggest test yet.
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These are two pretty mediocre units, so let's talk about the kickers as even they have both changed for these teams since the 2016 meeting. Rookie Jake Elliott has been an upgrade over Caleb Sturgis, and he quickly rose to fame after his 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants in Week 3. Kai Forbath actually replaced Blair Walsh during the 2016 season; he has been fairly reliable for the team, making 47 of his 53 field goals (88.7 percent). He did miss a 49-yard field goal before halftime last week, but was money in the fourth quarter on a second try from that distance and a 53-yard field goal with 1:29 left, which few remember because of the Diggs ending. I hate to jinx a Minnesota kicker in the playoffs, but extra points could be something to watch with Forbath. He's only making 84.9 percent of his extra points with the Vikings after having eight misses.
Under the new extra point rule, you just know some playoff game is eventually going to end after a kicker misses a 33-yard extra point that would have flipped the outcome or sent the game to overtime. For the sake of Minnesota fans, let's hope this is not that game.
Someone has to Jeff Hostetler their way to this Super Bowl. Philadelphia has played three games in a row where neither team cracked 20 points. The only time in the last 10 seasons that a team had a four-game streak like that involved the 2016 Rams, who started Keenum at quarterback in that stretch before Jared Goff took over. I think these teams are well coached enough for someone to crack 20 points, but staying under 40 combined points is likely the right call.
As Minnesota's head coach, Mike Zimmer is 44-22 (.667) against the spread, including the playoffs. That is the best record in the NFL since 2014, and the only team above 57 percent is New England at 47-24-2 (.658). In this game, we think Zimmer has the better quarterback, the better offense, and the better defense, but it's all still pretty close. That is why the Vikings deserve to be favored by about a field goal, but the Eagles will have a great shot to win this one as long as they don't try to make a hero out of Foles. He just has to play smart and trust his defense, but the exact same things can be said about Keenum on the other side. That's why this should be one of the closer title games in years. Neither team can really afford to have to make a big comeback against the opposing defense.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games.