The Minnesota Vikings won this season by playing historically good third-down defense and not turning the ball over on offense. What prevented them from going for a Super Bowl title were just those two things.
The Philadelphia Eagles beat the Vikings, 38-7, in the NFC championship game to advance to only their third Super Bowl ever. Few imagined the Eagles advancing to Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis’ US Bank Stadium without injured quarterback Carson Wentz, but the Eagles will will meet the New England Patriots — who are going to their third Super Bowl in four seasons and are seeking their sixth title.
The battle of the backups-turned-starting quarterbacks went the way of Nick Foles, who was brilliant on Sunday. After some shaky moments in replacing Wentz, Foles has cranked it up in the playoffs — and he was on a different level against a Vikings defense that ranked in the top five during the regular season in most defensive categories.
Foles finished 26-of-33 passing for 352 yards and three scores (passer rating of 141.7) and led three touchdowns and a field-goal drive in a five-possession span to turn a 7-0 Eagles deficit into a 31-7 lead over about two quarters of action. The Eagles got their first score a 50-yard pick-six by Patrick Robinson after the Vikings had grabbed the early momentum.
That interception was one of two crucial turnovers by Vikings QB Case Keenum, who had been very good this season. But he struggled prior to last week’s “Minnesota Miracle” pass to Stefon Diggs and was ineffective most of the game Sunday. Keenum finished 28-of-48 passing for 271 yards with the first-quarter pick and second-quarter fumble in the red zone.
As a team, the Vikings only turned it over 14 times during the regular season, but their two first-half giveaways led to two Eagles touchdowns. The Vikings drove to the Philadelphia 16-yard line in the second quarter and were in position to cut into a 14-7 Eagles lead. But Keenum never felt the pressure of Eagles rookie defensive end Derek Barnett, who logged the strip sack that was recovered by teammate Chris Long.
Seven plays later, Foles led a 76-yard drive to help put the game out of reach. The Vikings had a long shot to make the game more interesting in the third quarter, down 31-7, but Adam Thielen couldn’t haul in Keenum’s 4th-and-goal pass with 6:27 left in the third quarter.
The Eagles converted nine of their first 11 third downs, six of them needing 6 or more yards for a first. On 3rd-and-10 in the final minute of the first half, Foles nearly was sacked, escaped pressure and found a free-running Alshon Jeffery for a 53-yard score and a 24-7 halftime lead.
This was a stunning breakdown for a Vikings defense that allowed just over 25 percent of opponents’ third-down chances to be converted — one of the greatest percentages in the Super Bowl era. It also was a wild improvement for Foles and the Eagles, who were only 3-of-25 on third downs in his final two regular-season tune-up starts before the playoffs.
For good measure, Foles hit Jeffery for a 5-yard touchdown to make it 38-7. It was the second-highest point total in the postseason for an Eagles team since a 58-37 win over the Detroit Lions in the 1995 wild-card game at Veterans Stadium.
The last time the Eagles were in the Super Bowl was following the 2004 season when the met the Patriots in XXXIX at Jacksonville’s Alltel Stadium. The Patriots won, 24-21, and the Eagles have their chance at payback — with a few familiar faces in ex-Patriots Long and LeGarrette Blount (11-yard rushing TD on Sunday) on their side.
The Eagles might not have their best team going for their first ring, not with Wentz out for the season. But the way Foles has rebounded the past two games, the Eagles will have a great chance to do just that.