NFC East: Eagles-Vikings
|Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire|
|Quarterback Donovan McNabb delivered a clutch performance to lead the Eagles past the Vikings, 26-14.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Philadelphia Eagles weren't supposed to be here, and that may be part of the reason they have just as good a shot as anyone to reach the Super Bowl. It seems so long ago that we buried this team following its December loss to the Washington Redskins.
In Sunday's 26-14 wild-card playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Eagles served notice that they like playing on borrowed time. Coach Andy Reid made a good-faith effort (by his standards) to run the ball against a stout Vikings defense, but he eventually put the ball in the hands of Donovan McNabb. The perpetually embattled quarterback responded with a clutch performance, and Jim Johnson's blitz-happy defense did the rest.
The Eagles now face the New York Giants in a divisional playoff game next Sunday in the Meadowlands. The last time they were there (Dec. 7), they dominated the Giants in a 20-14 win. But we'll have more on that in my next 62 blog entries.
On Sunday in Minnesota, McNabb and Reid served notice that they're not going anywhere. The topic of their futures in Philadelphia should be off limits -- at least until next Sunday evening. McNabb finished 23 of 34 for 300 yards, one touchdown and an interception. But his two biggest throws of the game didn't come on scoring drives.
With the Eagles facing third-and-11 from their 4-yard line early in the second half, McNabb fired a rocket to Jason Avant for 12 yards on what was supposed to be a crossing route. Avant could tell he couldn't make it across the middle because of traffic, so he put on the brakes. McNabb planted the ball in Avant's chest.
McNabb threw for three more first downs on the drive, and the Eagles ended up punting from the Vikings' 43. With the way the defense was playing, that was good enough. And with his team once again pinned on its 4-yard line early in the fourth quarter, McNabb once again found Avant for a 12-yard pass. That drive ended at the Eagles' 46, but in a game in which field position played a vital role, those two drives helped extend the Eagles' season.
"They were very big, very big," McNabb said of the drives. "We weren't able to go down and put up points, but what we were able to do was eat up clock, keep their defense on the field and back them up so that they had to start backed up on the 5- or 10-yard line."
In a game that featured two top-five defenses, we shouldn't be surprised that McNabb completely outclassed Tarvaris Jackson. Other than an interception late in the first half that basically served as a punt, McNabb played mistake-free football. He connected on one deep pass to rookie DeSean Jackson, but for the most part, he simply took what the Vikings gave him. And despite the fact that Brian Westbrook was bottled up for most of the game, the Eagles kept dialing him up until the running back finally shut the door on the Vikings by taking a screen pass 71 yards for a touchdown.
Westbrook looked as if someone was controlling him with a joystick (Atari for my generation), and his arrival in the end zone set off a wild celebration along the Eagles' sideline. Until that point, the Vikings had held the Eagles' offense to three field goals, and All Pro defensive end Jared Allen had collected two sacks, each followed by his patented calf roping celebration, which appears so much easier without a calf involved.
"Our whole season comes down to one play," Allen said. "We dominated them and we took away what we needed to take away, and that happens."
I still think the Eagles win Sunday's game without Westbrook's touchdown, but it certainly created some breathing room. With a 23-14 lead, the Eagles eliminated Adrian Peterson as a factor over the final six minutes. And save for a brilliant 40-yard touchdown in the first half, the Eagles did a superb job of containing Peterson.
This is exactly the type of game the Eagles would've found a way to lose earlier in the season. There would've been a dropped pass, a delay of game or a bizarre call on third-and-short. But this looks like a different team. And it all starts with the quarterback.
"Basically, he put this team on his back," said Westbrook of McNabb. "We really didn't have much of a running game, but he threw the ball down the field. He stood there and faced the blitz. That's what you expect from a superstar quarterback."
Jackson rises to the occasion
Jackson said he felt a little "shaky" just before kickoff. He'd been warned about the higher intensity level in the playoffs, but he said it didn't hit home until he observed players on the opening kickoff.
"The speed was different than what I've seen in any other game," he said.
Fortunately for the Eagles, Jackson settled down and ended up making a huge contribution. His 62-yard punt return set up the Eagles' first field goal and his 34-yard catch put the Eagles in position to take a 9-7 lead in the second quarter. Jackson later added a 30-yard punt return up the left sideline to give the Eagles the ball at the Vikings' 40. After doing a live shot with a Japanese film crew, he told me that he watched film of Reggie Bush returning two punts for touchdowns against the Vikings earlier in the season.
"[Bush] broke two returns and tripped on the third or he would have had another," Jackson said. "That punter out-kicks their coverage and that makes things really tough on them. But my punt return team also did a phenomenal job."
Some of you might recall that Jackson was one of the goats in a 10-3 loss to the Redskins last month that appeared to knock the Eagles out of the playoffs. He dropped a couple of deep balls after openly complaining that McNabb missed him on a couple of plays earlier in the game. Jackson said that Reid and McNabb both made it a point to encourage him the following week in practice.
"I went up and told Donovan not to stop throwing my way," Jackson said. "He said, 'I'm gonna need you,' and he turned out to be right."
MINNEAPOLIS -- Who says the Eagles need a running game? Quarterback Donovan McNabb delivered clutch throws all afternoon before Brian Westbrook nailed the door shut on the Vikings when he raced for a 71-yard touchdown after catching a short pass midway through the fourth quarter. The Eagles advanced to a divisional playoff game next Sunday at 1 p.m. ET against the defending champion New York Giants.
With nothing working on the ground -- other than Correll Buckhalter's 27-yard scamper -- McNabb did a superb job of controlling the game with his arm. Twice he led the Eagles from the shadow of their end zone with brilliant throws to wide receiver Jason Avant. McNabb threw the ball to eight different players.
He finished 23 of 34 for 300 yards and a touchdown. He threw a bad interception late in the first half, but he more than atoned for that by helping his team hold the ball for much of the second half. For most of the day, the Eagles' defense did a nice job of holding down Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. He got loose for a 40-yard touchdown to put Minnesota on top 7-6, but he only finished with 83 yards on 20 carries. Eagles defensive end Trent Cole had a huge day with 14 tackles and cornerback Asante Samuel overcame an hip injury to make a game-changing play in the first half.
Samuel jumped in front of a Tarvaris Jackson pass and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown to give the Eagles a 16-7 lead. He had to leave the game at one point, but he returned and did a nice job against the Vikings receivers.
It was obvious that Jim Johnson's defense wanted to make life miserable for Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. He looked overwhelmed for most of the game and made a lot of poor throws.
It was also a huge playoff debut for Eagles rookie DeSean Jackson. His one catch of the day went for 34 yards and it put the Eagles in scoring position. He also had a 62-yard punt return that set up another score.
MINNEAPOLIS -- That's the second great escape this half for Donovan McNabb and Jason Avant. Another huge throw on the 12-yard curl to Avant when the Vikings desperately needed a stop deep in Eagles territory.
The Eagles are now chipping defensive end Jared Allen on almost every pass play. Makes sense to me. You have to give Vikings defensive end Brian Robison some credit on that last third-down play. Used a spin move on veteran right tackle Jon Runyan and then forced a poor throw from McNabb. In other news, the Metrodome last updated its music playlist in the fall of '87.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
MINNEAPOLIS -- In my mind, Philadelphia coach Andy Reid just made another questionable decision. Quarterback Donovan McNabb's arm appeared to be going forward when he was hit by Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. I don't know if the fumble would've been overturned, but it's one of those where it's OK to take the chance on a challenge.
It looked like McNabb was trying to convince Reid to challenge the play. Eagles left tackle Tra Thomas has had his moments against Allen today, but on that sack, Allen beat him with an outside speed move. Thomas simply didn't get enough depth on the play.
And upon further review, the Vikings just made a huge play on special teams. Let's see if Donovan McNabb can bail his team out again.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Whether the Eagles score on this current drive, the four first downs are huge. The throw to Jason Avant on third-and-11 from the Eagles' 4-yard line was as clutch as you'll see.
They're keeping Adrian Peterson off the field, and they just need about 5 more yards to be in field goal range.
If McNabb doesn't make that throw to Avant, this place erupts.
MINNEAPOLIS -- I have no clue what either team was doing in the last two minutes of the first half. The Eagles had a third-and-1 at their own 47-yard line with a 1:10 left and a timeout in their pocket. Instead of securing the first down and a possible chance at a field goal, Donovan McNabb tried to hit Kevin Curtis on a fly pattern down the left sideline. Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin was on it the entire time and made the interception.
Because of Brad Childress' bumbling play calling, the Eagles had one last shot at scoring. But McNabb missed a wide-open Brian Westbrook on a swing pass and then connected with the running back on a short throw in the flat which effectively ended the first half.
In a game in which points are precious, Andy Reid and McNabb keep throwing them away.
MINNEAPOLIS -- So much for that hip strain that caused Asante Samuel to miss practice Friday and left his status in doubt heading into today's game. Samuel knew exactly where Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was going with the ball and jumped the route before returning it for a touchdown -- the fourth of his career in the playoffs.
The Vikings have answered with a long touchdown drive. The big play was of course the pass across the middle to Bernard Berrian that bounced off his chest before he took off with it. I thought we were going to have one of those slug-it-out, field position games early, but both teams are making huge plays.
And I have no clue why the Eagles just decided to go deep on third-and-1 with over a minute left. They had a timeout and a real opportunity to go into halftime up, 19-14. Oh my goodness. Brad Childress has outdone himself this time. It looked like he would settle for a 16-14 lead and kneel the ball three straight plays. Instead, he called for a short pass on second down, which was incomplete.
Some of the most baffling decisions I've witnessed all season -- and it's happening in the playoffs.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Eagles had done a nice job of setting the edge against Adrian Peterson and not giving him any cutback lanes -- until that last run. The Vikings had everything pointed toward the right side and then Peterson spotted a massive lane and cutback to his left for a 40-yard touchdown.
Looked like linebacker Chris Gocong had the only legitimate shot at bringing Peterson down, but there's no way you arm tackle this guy once he gets to the second level. Meanwhile, on the ensuing drive, Donovan McNabb just completed a ball to Kevin Curtis into tight coverage.
And while we're in a timeout, let's talk about how predictable the Eagles' offense is at times. Other than the one long run by Correll Buckhalter, there hasn't been much available on the ground. But part of that is the fact that the Eagles almost always seen to run on second down. At some point, it might not be bad to mix in a run on first down to keep the Vikings honest.
Well, DeSean Jackson just completely burned Vikings cornerback Marcus McCauley on a deep ball down the sideline. Everyone wanted to know how Jackson would perform in his first playoff game. So far, so good.
MINNEAPOLIS -- I think everyone in the building is trying to figure out why Vikings coach Brad Childress just declined that holding penalty. If he accepts the penalty, the Eagles would've been facing a third-and-19 situation. If they have an incomplete pass, you're looking at a 54-yard attempt. Does Childress have that much respect for his old offense? Or is he still worried about Andy Reid's health?
In a game that could be decided on field position, I don't have any clue how Childress defends that decision. Meanwhile, Eagles safety Brian Dawkins just drilled Adrian Peterson at the end of a play -- leaving the Pro Bowler on the ground for a couple of minutes. It looks like the Vikings' medical staff just checked him out and gave him the OK to go back into the game.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Considering the fact that Greg Lewis was the intended target on a deep ball during the Eagles' first drive, I'm thinking he's going to be OK. We just found out he suffered an ankle sprain in pregame warm-ups, but he's obviously playing now.
On the Vikings' first play from scrimmage, Eagles middle linebacker Stewart Bradley absolutely destroyed Adrian Peterson when he tried to pick him up on the blitz. Bradley caused the errant throw from quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.
Well, there's the rare running play for a first down on third-and-11. Chester Taylor continues to be an excellent complement to Peterson, who has two carries for minus-2 yards so far.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Sort of a strange choice for the Eagles. Runyan's a great guy, but he's not particularly vocal during games.
OK, even with all the talk of the no-shows at the Metrodome, this place is pretty freakin' loud right now. The team's beloved human mascot, Ragnar, just led the team out on a purple and gold motorcycle.
He came to a stop next to Eagles punter Sav Rocca and appeared to shout some non-encouraging words.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Eagles wide receiver Greg Lewis was carted off the field 20 minutes before kickoff. Several Eagles raced over to encourage him as he was taken off the field. Sort of a bizarre scene. Can't be a good sign for the Eagles.
I'm en route to talk to the Eagles' public relations staff. Back with more details in a moment. Hopefully.
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're a little more than an hour away from kickoff and a herd of sportswriters just blitzed a spread of chicken strips located five feet away from my laptop.
On the field, Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel came out about 30 minutes ago and worked on getting in out of breaks. Sal Paolantonio had already reported that Samuel was going to play, and the inactives list that just floated across my desk backed that up.
There was a buzz (perhaps food-related) that went through the press box when Vikings defensive tackle Pat Williams showed up on the inactives list. The Vikings were counting on Williams to return this week, so it's certainly a setback. Fred "South Beach" Evans will take Williams' place in the starting lineup.
For an Eagles' fandom and media corps obsessed with Andy Reid's anti-run stance, this is good news. Just like he did against the Giants last month, it would be wise for Reid to feed the ball to Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter.
In other news, I'm pleased to be dual-blogging with NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert today. I'm also sitting next to Hall of Fame NFL writer and my former office mate Rick "Goose" Gosselin, who has at least 17 highlighters and one of the most complicated looking charts I've seen.
OK, I'm about to dive inside the ESPN Stats & Analysis database. Wish me luck.