5 things to watch for when Eagles host Vikings for NFC title game

The Eagles will play in the NFC Championship game for the seventh time in the last 18 years Sunday. And when things kick off Sunday, at 6:40 on Fox, it will feel like the good old days.

The winner will advance to the Super Bowl, playing the winner of the AFC’s Jaguars-Patriots tilt. In the past two (and only two) Eagles’ Super Bowl berths, the team beat the Vikings in the playoffs at some point. They’ll try to make it three this weekend.

For a team playing without most of its best players — notably Carson Wentz, Darren Sproles, Jordan Hicks and Jason Peters — the Birds’ current position is simply gravy for a team that has high potential and is not fielding its best roster. Here are five keys to a win on Sunday:

1. Third down battle

The Vikings have the best third down defense ever recorded, allowing a conversion just around 25 percent of the time. Up first on the Eagles to-do list Sunday will be not only finding creative ways to convert on third downs, but also making sure they are short and more attainable distances.

Philly was very good in this against the Falcons last week, going 6-for-13 on third downs.

“We need to stay in phase,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “We had a lot of third-and-manageables last week. I think we avoided negative plays. We had obviously a few negative runs … We didn’t have too many penalties. … Last week I think we had three drives of over 10 plays, so that’s the challenge against going up against one of the better defenses in the league. And so I think one thing is we have to scheme, and our players, we all together, have to ways to make a few chunk plays here and there.

2. Keep Diggs, Thielen in check

Any fantasy football player will know the names of Minnesota’s receivers. Adam Thielen has emerged as one of the best volume wideouts in the NFL, and Stefon Diggs has become a household name after his game-winning walkoff touchdown against the Saints last week. Keeping tabs on the duo — which has combined for more than 2,000 yards and 12 touchdowns — will be paramount for the defense.

“These are good receivers,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “These guys have worked themselves. I mean, you look at Adams’ [Thielen] career and how he started and got into this league and the way he’s worked. There is another player right there. Great example of a guy that just said, ‘I’m not going to listen to the outside noise and I’m going to do everything I can to make this team, make this roster,’ and now he’s a 1,000-yard receiver, just playing extremely well.”

3. Hit the ground running

The run game was important when Wentz was under center, and he was the leading NFL MVP candidate before he went down in Week 13. Now with Nick Foles calling the shots with the football, the Birds will need a similarly run-first gameplan to work again. Last week, short passes, screens and 96 rushing yards helped them control the pace and the ball.

“The quick, short passing game obviously can help, the running game can help,” Pederson said. “Somewhere in there, if you can take a shot, you take a shot and whether you hit, like first play of the game, if you hit it or not, that kind of gets your blood flowing a little bit.”

4. Score in the red zone

The Eagles scored 15 points against the Falcons and it was enough, thanks to a great defensive effort. But six points came from chip shot field goals last week — leaving what amounts to essentially eight wasted points. Getting Alshon Jeffery going could be the key to scoring against the Vikings. Afterall, the former Bears wideout has scored seven touchdowns while averaging 76 yards in nine games against Minnesota.

“I’ve gone back and looked at that match-up in particular just to see the battle that went on and the types of things that Alshon did against [Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes], and the coverage technique that he used. Does it apply to this game? Maybe a little bit. I think Alshon’s a better player. I think [Rhodes is] a much better player, obviously, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence. It’s going to be another great match-up again Sunday evening.”

5. In Doug we trust

All season long Pederson has exceeded expectations as the Eagles sophomore head coach. He has made bold decisions regarding game management and play-calling and many of the unconventional choices he’s made have paid off. And the coach deserves as much credit as anybody for taking the bruised and battered Birds this far. His decision making will be under intense scrutiny Sunday,

“What I’ve learned about him and through watching him call plays is probably a little bit more unorthodox at times in a good way – calling two screens back-to-back, for instance, the other day,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “Some of the stuff, there’s other examples that I don’t even want to get into just for competitive advantage reasons, but there’s other things that he’s called that at the time I thought, that’s unique, I’m not sure that would have hit my brain like that, and many times those things have worked out. So that’s been fun to see and fun to work with.”

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