1. Vaitai handles Griffen challenge
The most frightening matchup for Philadelphia in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game featured struggling young left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai against Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen. According to Pro Football Focus, Vaitai gave up nine sacks in just nine games this season, the second most by a tackle. But late into the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 38-7 win, Vaitai contained Griffen, who had just two tackles and no sacks. And now Vaitai is on his way to Super Bowl LII as one of the unheralded stories of Philadelphia’s impressive depth. Quarterback Carson Wentz wasn’t the only key Eagle grounded this season. Nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters tore an ACL in Week 7. Rather than move right tackle Lane Johnson and disrupt two positions, the Eagles trusted Vaitai to step in at left tackle. The second-year pro had zero career starts at left tackle and only seven at right tackle.
2. Eagles offense in rhythm
Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur taught us a lot this season about the importance of rhythm and varying tempo on offense. Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who doesn’t call plays, touched last week on the need to continue doing just that in Sunday’s game. Three of the Eagles’ nine drives in a divisional win over the Falcons lasted 12, 14 and 14 plays and gained 74, 80 and 86 yards. “We had a lot of third-and-manageables,” Reich said of the Atlanta win. “We avoided a lot of negative plays.” The Eagles had five negative-yardage plays and a false start against Atlanta. Against the Vikings, the Eagles took a 14-7 second-quarter lead with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that featured two third-down conversion passes to tight end Zach Ertz. When the Eagles led 38-7, they had two 12-play drives and four drives of 75 yards or more, including a 92-yarder.
3. Cox is a ‘game-wrecker’ too
Eagles coach Doug Pederson called Griffen a “game-wrecker” last week. He could have said the same thing about his own top defensive lineman, Fletcher Cox. In the summer of 2016, the Eagles handed him a six-year, $103 million extension. To Cox’s credit, the money didn’t soften him. It lifted his play and his desire to lead. During the regular season, he played 58.9 percent of the defensive snaps. In a divisional win over the Falcons, he stayed on the field for 56 of 59 snaps. “That’s the best I’ve seen him play,” said left end Brandon Graham. “And he’s only going to get better.” Against the Vikings, the Eagles gave up 27 yards rushing on six carries on the opening touchdown drive. But on the first rush of the Vikings’ second possession, Cox slammed Latavius Murray for no gain on a tone-setting tackle.
4. Eagles run defense bounces back
The Vikings came in with the higher-ranked defense in most categories. Except run defense. The Eagles are pretty doggone proud of their top-ranked unit (79.2). But hidden in that number was a 4.3-yard average allowed over the past six games. Offensively, the Vikings had the seventh-best running game (122.3), but their average of 3.9 ranked 23rd. Matched in a NFC title game featuring two defense-oriented teams with backup quarterbacks, the running game was going to be vital. The Vikings ranked second in run defense (83.6) and were facing an Eagles team that averaged just 3.0 yards against the Falcons. The Eagles went over 100 yards rushing and had three runs of 10 or more yards. That included an 11-yard touchdown run by LeGarrette Blount, who ran over safety Andrew Sendejo at the 5. The Vikings were held to 70 yards rushing.
5. Don’t underrate Pederson
Eagles players aren’t the only ones who could pull on a dog mask to taunt the people who didn’t think they’d reach Super Bowl LII by winning back-to-back playoff games as home underdogs. Pederson has been doubted since he was one of seven new coaching hires two years ago. Former NFL executive Michael Lombardi was famously quoted as saying, “Pederson might be less qualified to coach a team than anyone I’ve ever seen in my 30-plus years in the NFL.” Pederson was asked about that last week. “I don’t pay any attention to that, quite honestly,” he said. “Our players don’t pay much attention to that, and I’m kind of the same way. Except for the dog mask.” Now, Pederson gets to match wits with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who will be making his 11th Super Bowl appearance, including eight as a head coach.