Vikings-Eagles lacks marquee quarterbacks and everybody knows it
PHILADELPHIA—Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum had the most colorful line in the run-up to the NFC Championship game, delivered in a style as dry as a saltine cracker.
"I know this is what you guys predicted back in the day, a Foles versus Keenum NFC Championship," Keenum said. "So good job to all you guys who predicted that."
Whether Keenum was being purely sarcastic, purely self-deprecating or a mix of the two remains up for debate. Either way, his point was spot-on: At the start of the NFL season in September, nobody foresaw a trip to the Super Bowl riding on the journeyman arms of Keenum or his Philadelphia Eagles colleague Nick Foles.
Nobody, including Keenum and Foles.
But here we are, tickets to Minneapolis and U.S Bank Stadium for the Feb. 4 game depending in large part on quarterbacks who started the season behind starters Sam Bradford in Minnesota and Carson Wentz in Philadelphia. The Vikings and Eagles play at 5:40 p.m. (CST) Sunday, Jan. 21, at Lincoln Financial Field.
If Philadelphia sports talk radio is any indication, Eagles fans have dismissed fears their team can't win without Wentz. This is a change from the days and weeks immediately after Wentz, the former North Dakota State star, was lost for the season with a knee injury in December. Local media and fans were writing obituaries for the Eagles because they didn't believe Foles had what it took win playoff games.
Foles is certainly no Wentz, but he did help the Eagles secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC and his second-half performance in a 15-10 divisional win over Atlanta last weekend was good enough that callers to radio programs Friday, Jan. 19, were on board with their quarterback. Foles went 11 for 15 for 137 yards on Philadelphia's two field-goal drives in the second half that were the difference in the game.
Forget the Wentz Wagon and fire up the Foles Ferrari.
"It's easy to be a pass catcher when you're able to be on the same page as a quarterback," Eagles tight end Zach Ertz said. "You're able to see the game the same way and that's why I think some of the guys' production has remained the same with Nick. We're able to carry the things over that Carson had in the way he saw the game and Nick is very similar in that regard."
The vibe is much the same with the Vikings, a team that rescued a miraculous victory from the jaws of crushing defeat with a 61-yard touchdown pass from Keenum to Stefon Diggs as time expired. Minnesota escaped New Orleans 29-24.
Keenum is folk hero in Minnesota, where he'd already been well-accepted by the fan base after playing well most of the season in relief of Bradford.
"Case 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," Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said. "He's an athletic quarterback, getting the ball out of his hand quick. I think (Vikings offensive coordinator) Pat Shurmur has done a nice job of putting him in those successful situations."
Pederson's phrasing—"putting him in those successful situations"—is the tempered approach to quarterback praise being heard this week if one listens closely enough. There is very little effusive exultation tossed at Keenum and Foles like that thrown toward Wentz or New England's Tom Brady. You won't hear much about either of these quarterbacks winning a game on their own merits, but rather code words like "efficient" and "getting put in good positions."
Such as those spoken about Keenum's success by Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham.
"I think it's from Shurmur putting him in a good position. You know, he doesn't allow him to do too much that's not him," Graham said. "I think they do a good job as far as how they call their plays and what position they put him in. I think he's done a great job as far as what they ask him to do."
There are reasons for this. Foles has not been a world-beater and his first half against the Falcons included some plays that could be defined as lucky. The Eagles also benefited from a couple of key pass interference calls. As for Keenum, his panicked throw late in the third quarter against the Saints led to an easy interception to set up a Drew Brees touchdown pass and helped make for the frantic finish.
There seems to be a realization that Sunday's game will not be a shootout and points will be at a premium. Some of the callers and hosts on the local radio shows, while predicting an Eagles victory, believe the game will be low-scoring. One host said all he wants from Foles is a handful of 55-yard drives, believing a few field goals and maybe one touchdown will be enough to beat the Vikings.
He might be right, given the strength of the Minnesota and Philadelphia defenses. It seems nobody is seeing this as a marquee quarterback matchup. That includes some of the players.
"The cliche that defense wins championships is alive and well," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "The biggest thing at the quarterback position, if you have a strong defense, is to take care of the football. ...They take care of the football. They don't make a ton of mistakes. So they allow their team to play patient games, to run the ball, play defense and then strike when you have the opportunity."