Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Eric Kendricks

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Image courtesy of Vikings.com

NFL Playoffs: NFC Conference Championship – Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles

The NFC Championship Game features a showdown between the conference’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles will face off at Lincoln Financial Field in Pennsylvania. The winner will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in Minneapolis on February 4th.

At first glance this matchup appears to be a defensive battle. While that could be the case, all eyes will be on the quarterbacks, both of whom started the season as backups.

Last week, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles went 23 of 30 for 246 yards with zero touchdowns and zero interceptions. He had a passer rating of 100.1. According to NBC Sports he’s the first quarterback in NFL history to have a passer rating of over 100 in his first two postseason starts.

In his first career playoff start, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum went 25 of 40 for 318 yards with one touchdown and one interception in the 29-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints. He had a passer rating of 85.2.

Both teams won in dramatic fashion last weekend. Philadelphia hung on to beat the Atlanta Falcons 15-10 thanks to a late goal-line stand by the Eagles defense.

The Vikings game ended with a pretty wild finish as well.

The teams are similar in a number of ways. Both teams finished with 13-3 records in the regular season, both have top-five defenses (including the top-2 NFL run defenses), and both teams feature balanced offensive attacks.

However, both teams have their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at how the teams stack up by the numbers.

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Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Minnesota Vikings pull off a near-impossible victory over the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Round of the NFC playoffs.

The Vikings needed all sixty minutes to earn a victory over the Saints on Sunday. With ten seconds left in the game, Case Keenum connected with Stefon Diggs on an improbable 61-yard touchdown pass that will forever be remembered as the “Minneapolis Miracle.”

On a long sideline pass designed for the receiver to go out-of-bounds to stop the clock for a last-second field goal attempt, things fell in the Vikings favor. Saints safety Marcus Williams charged forward to make the tackle, missed Diggs completely, then the receiver turned up-field. The rest is history.

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Vikings Lift the Curse
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Fairytale endings don’t exist in Minnesota. It’s where the Big, Bad Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood; where Hansel and Gretel don’t escape the witch’s grasp; where Humpty Dumpty is never put back together again.

Until tonight, when Case Keenum and Stefon Diggs rewrote what could be the final chapter of the Minnesota Vikings’ storybook 2017 season.

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Image courtesy of Vikings.com

2017 Minnesota Vikings Pro Football Focus grades.

Before we get started I would like to make some things clear about PFF grades.

Pro Football Focus (PFF) has been grading NFL players since 2004. The football analytics site evaluates individual performances on a play-by-play basis. On every play of every game, a PFF analyst will grade each player on a scale of -2 to +2 according to what he did on the play.

From the Pro Football Focus website:

pff player grades

The grading method was designed to build a clearer picture of how players performed, rather than simply judging performances based on box-score stats. Stats can be misleading.

While most statistical analysis is quantitative in nature, PFF uses qualitative measures and opinion-based grading as the basis of their rankings, so like baseball umpires, their calls could be construed by critics as “biased.” However, the grading process is overseen by at least three individuals per contest, so while the numbers may not always be perfect, the process itself is rather reliable.

What’s also unique about PFF is that season-level grades also account for the duration of good and bad play, resulting in “compounded” grades (both positive and negative) if the player’s performance continues for long periods of time. Basically, the grades factor in “streaky” play. Kinda cool, right?

Anyways…I hope that helped. It’s better to know these things beforehand because some grades may surprise you.

So without further adieu, here are the 2017 season grades for each qualified Viking. The players are arranged by grade within their position group. Notable position rankings are listed in parentheses.

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Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Well, here we are. The bye has passed, and fate has given us the most intriguing/dangerous/emotionally charged (at least for fans) opponent the NFC has to offer in the Divisional round. Vikings/Saints has the feel of a marquee matchup, and something tells me even neutral fans will be making point to tune in at 3:40 CT Sunday.

I’ll spare you a lengthy windup, because you already know the history and what’s at stake. Instead, let’s get right to it, and take a look at some of the most important individual matchups within the game.

Xavier Rhodes vs. Michael Thomas

Xavier Rhodes vs. somebody seems to be a banner matchup almost every week; 2017 has seen Rhodes shadow Thomas once already, plus Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Julio Jones, and AJ Green, to name a few. And his exemplary work against this group of elite receivers is one of many reasons Rhodes was named First-Team All-Pro and is widely considered one of the top shutdown corners in the game.

In their first meeting, Michael Thomas caught five passes for 45 yards and was held largely in check. Much has changed for the Saints (and most of the NFL) since Week 1, and Thomas — undoubtedly Drew Brees’ top downfield option — is coming off an eight-catch, 131-yard performance against Carolina in the Wild Card round. Rhodes will have his hands full and will often be asked to cover Thomas one-on-one, but, outside of a head-scratching and altogether subpar performance agains the Lions’ Marvin Jones in Week 12, he has proven almost universally up to the task in 2017.