PHILADELPHIA – They say stats don’t lie, but the Philadelphia Eagles aren’t buying the ones that say they’ll have the second-best defense in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field.
Told that the Vikings believe they have the best defense in all the land, if not the universe and beyond, Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham laughed, figuratively bit his tongue as most present-day athletes are taught so well to do, and said: “If they think that, that’s good for them. But we’re confident in our defense, too. And we’re ready to play this game.”
The Vikings led the league in fewest yards allowed this season (275.9). The Eagles were fourth (306.5).
The Vikings led the league in fewest points allowed (15.8). The Eagles were fourth (18.4).
The Vikings led the league in third-down percentage (25.25). The Eagles were third (32.2).
That’s an important numeric pecking order trend that the fellas in Philly don’t like hearing and seem determined to swat off the nearest sportswriter’s forehead come Sunday night.
“We always have the mind-set every week that we are the best,” defensive end and sacks leader Brandon Graham said. “I think this is a good opportunity to prove who the best defensive line is. We’re playing against the best. If we say we’re the best, we got to prove it.
“Go out there and have more intensity than their defense. Then we’ll see what happens.”
As someone who attended last year’s 21-10 Vikings loss at Philadelphia, I scratched my head a bit at the narrative that Carson Wentz’s season-ending knee injury flung the door wide open for the Vikings to reach the Super Bowl.
Yes, it certainly helps the Vikings’ chances, as evidenced by the fact Vegas has them favored in this game. But how soon we forget what Jim Schwartz’s defense did to that 5-0 Vikings team that was coming off a bye.
The Eagles offense had one touchdown and four turnovers in that game. Its first four possessions went punt, interception, fumble, interception. Wentz passed for 138 yards with a passer rating of 52.4.
Defensively, Schwartz surprised the Vikings by blitzing a lot more than he normally does. This was a no-brainer with T.J. Clemmings playing most of the game at right tackle after moving from left tackle to make room for Jake Long, who had just been signed off the NFL’s scrap heap out of sheer desperation.
The Eagles had six sacks, 13 additional hits on Sam Bradford and three takeaways. The Vikings have a different quarterback and the offensive line is now a strength, but the Eagles also believe their defense is much better than last year’s unit, which ranked 12th in points allowed and 13th in yards allowed.
The key to the Eagles defense is the front four of ends Graham and Vinny Curry, and tackles Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan. With those four, the Eagles can lead the league in run defense (79.2) — the Vikings are second (83.6) — while getting pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz beyond what Schwartz calls his “surgical” strikes.
“The key to this game,” Cox said, “is stopping the run and then us two tackles pressuring [Case] Keenum up the middle so he can’t run.”
A week ago, the Vikings dominated Drew Brees and the Saints in the first half. They led 17-0, although the Saints did have 92 yards in penalties, including an illegal-motion penalty that nullified a touchdown pass.
But if not for the “Minneapolis Miracle,” the story line this week would have been a second-half collapse that saw the Saints score 24 points, convert on fourth-and-10 and take not one but two leads in the final three minutes.
Meanwhile, the day before in Philly, the Eagles needed only one touchdown and 15 points to dethrone the defending NFC champion Falcons.
“As a defensive player, when you have the No. 1 defense coming in, obviously you’re fired up,” Cox said. “And we know going into this game that whoever’s defense plays the best is going to win the game.”