We don’t know what the Minnesota Vikings have in store for an encore, but Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles for the right to go to the Super Bowl certainly has a lot of potential. The Vikings are favored by 3.5 points with reduced juice at MyBookieand across most of the market for the NFC Championship Game. Despite a crazy Sunday in terms of scoring, the total for this game sits at 38, so oddsmakers are clearly expecting a defensive struggle.
The first walk-off touchdown in NFL playoff history not only caused one of the greatest moments in NFL history, but in sports gambling history as well. Some game day Saints bettors won. Early Vikings bettors won. Saints money line players stared in disbelief. After a 10-minute delay to get enough Saints players back on the field, the Vikings kneeled on a meaningless point after touchdown try that could have created the worst bad beat in NFL history for the Saints +5.5 crowd. Over bettors enjoyed the 29-point fourth quarter. Under bettors most certainly did not.
The Vikings improved to 14-3 straight up with the win. For some, they are 12-4-1 ATS, as the market close consensus number was probably 5, but there were undoubtedly some 5.5s out there. Most Vikings backers should have gotten them early in the week at anywhere from -3.5 to -4.5, so you were a winner in the most improbable of fashions. This game became the ultimate roller coaster ride of emotions in the fourth quarter, as Kai Forbath seemingly eliminated the memories of Vikings’ kicking disappointments of the past by absolutely striping a 53-yarder down the middle with 1:29 left like it was a Dustin Johnson drive. We all know what happened in the crazy 89 seconds of game time after that.
The Eagles had a goal-line stand in their 15-10 win to survive and advance over the Atlanta Falcons. Philadelphia has the luxury of an extra day of rest after playing on Saturday, so we’ll see what that means, especially with the nature of Minnesota’s win plus travel from the Twin Cities to the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia is now 14-3 straight up and 11-6 against the number with that outright upset win as the first #1 seed to be an underdog in the Divisional Round. The Eagles find themselves a dog again in this spot, but this time north of the key number of 3. There is extra juice out there to take Philadelphia, ranging from -115 to -120.
Lost in the hoopla and ridiculousness that was the end of that game, Case Keenum really wasn’t very good in the Divisional Round. Keenum was 25-of-30 for 318 yards with two touchdowns and an interception that completely turned the tide of the game. Still, he made plays when it mattered, with the throw to Diggs and a less-heralded throw to Jarius Wright that was upheld on video review and set up the Forbath field goal. Pat Shurmur’s offensive scheme is predicated on making high-percentage throws to get guys like Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen into space to rack up yards after catch. That was clearly the case in this game. It will be something that the Eagles will have to focus on. The Vikings never really got the running game going with just 95 yards on 29 carries. The Vikings did, however, control the game by going 10-of-17 on third down. That is typically a good measure of play design and scheming and Minnesota’s success on third down, both offensively and defensively, has been the deciding factor of this season. The Vikings were third offensively and historically good defensively.
The Saints were just 2-of-9 on third down. Drew Brees made some ridiculous throws in the fourth quarter, including his 4th-and-10 toss to Willie Snead, but the Vikings did a pretty good job on the “Money Down” in terms of forcing the Saints into field goal attempts or punts. New Orleans never got the running game going, with just 3.3 yards per carry on 24 tries. Philadelphia will have to run the rock to have success. The Eagles don’t have Drew Brees. The Eagles have Nick Foles. Philadelphia also doesn’t really have a Michael Thomas and few teams have an Alvin Kamara. Those are the guys that really created the chunk plays for the Saints. Minnesota sacked Brees twice and had a couple of picks. One injury that really changed the complexion of the game that got lost in the shuffle was the one that knocked Andrew Sendejo out with a concussion. Sendejo had a pick and four tackles. He also appeared to lose consciousness and is in the league’s concussion protocol. If he can’t go, that is a big loss, though clearly not to the same degree that it would be against a guy like Brees.
It wasn’t pretty for the Eagles, but it doesn’t have to be at this time of the year. Win and keep playing. That’s all that matters. Nick Foles didn’t hurt them and that was the biggest reason why the Eagles advanced. Foles was actually pretty good by going 23-of-30 for 246 yards with zero touchdowns, zero picks, and just one sack taken. He did fumble twice, but both were recovered by his own team. The Eagles actually fumbled four times in the game and lost two. The running game only managed 96 yards on 32 attempts, as Philadelphia’s best runs came from wide receiver Nelson Agholor. The conservative game plan was just enough because LeGarrette Blount scored a short TD and Jake Elliott made all three field goals. Will a similar blueprint work against the Vikings? The game plan for Foles was a lot like the one that the Vikings have used with Case Keenum most of the year. High-percentage throws designed to get some yards after the catch. Both Pat Shurmur and Doug Pederson come from the Andy Reid coaching tree, so that shouldn’t surprise anybody.
The Eagles defense was terrific in the win over the Falcons. Atlanta was just 4-of-13 on third down, cashed in on only one of three red zone trips, and managed just 4.8 yards per play. The Falcons did run for 4.3 yards per carry and Julio Jones had a big game, but the Eagles did a good job of limiting big plays for guys not named Jones. Matt Ryan was sacked three times and hit a lot more and the Eagles held Ryan to just 5.8 yards per pass attempt. The defense was fully aware of what needed to be done with the uncertainty of Foles and Jim Schwartz put together a great plan of attack. Philadelphia’s ability to get pressure with the base front four allows the back seven to limit big plays. Atlanta’s longest play on the day was 24 yards and the receivers only managed 9.5 yards per catch. Limiting yards after the catch is how to beat Minnesota, so we’ll see if the Eagles have the necessary speed to bottle up Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. The Saints couldn’t and it eventually cost them the game.
Free NFL Pick: Philadelphia Eagles +3.5
The Vikings should win this game and I would expect them to advance to the Super Bowl and be the first team to play in its home stadium in history, but the Eagles should keep this thing low-scoring and competitive throughout. These two teams have a ton of similarities, since Shurmur and Pederson come from the Andy Reid coaching tree and both Mike Zimmer and Jim Schwartz are excellent defensive minds. George Edwards has done brilliant work as the Vikings’ DC. If, and this is a big if, Andrew Sendejo can go, I’d be more interested in taking Minnesota. Seeing how much the Vikes struggled when he went out is a concern. The Eagles don’t have the firepower of the Saints, but he’s a high-impact player and a sure tackler in space. There is no reason to jump at this line, though, as it should sit about here throughout the week.