The Vikings hold an NFL-best 8-1 record coming out of bye weeks. That record will be severely tested as the Vikings resume the 2001 season at Philadelphia, where the fans are mean and the team is becoming meaner.
When the Vikings drafted Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb was already gone — taken by the Eagles. He has lived up to draft expectations, leading the Eagles to the playoffs when he was the clear focus of the offense last season. Blessed with a strong arm and excellent running ability, McNabb can beat you with his arm, his feet and his intelligence. Unlike Culpepper, McNabb didn't have a Pro Bowl cast around him when he was named the starter, but he may have some around him now. One of the keys to beating the Eagles is forcing McNabb to stay in the pocket and not give him the chance to run. If he hits the open field, it will be trouble.
McNabb was the leading rusher for the Eagles last year because of injuries and, while they've been rectified somewhat this season, they're not cured by any stretch of the imagination. Duce Staley was lost for the season early last year with a foot injury. This time around, it's been a shoulder injury that has sidelined him. However, rookie Correll Buckhalter has been a savior for the offense, stepping in and taking the load as the rushing threat. Also in the mix is Mr. Everything Brian Mitchell, who catches passes, returns kicks and perhaps cooks the pregame meal for the Eagles. While Staley is expected to be the main man by the time the Eagles meet the Vikes, there isn't the dropoff this season there was in past seasons.
The passing game in Philly has seen an infusion of new talent through the draft, free agency and attrition. A holdover from last year, Todd Pinkston has emerged as a steady receiver, joined by former Redskin James Thrash, who has become McNabb's clutch receiver. Rookie Freddie Mitchell and Na Brown also fit in the mix, giving the Eagles several viable options. But, when the Eagles get in the red zone, another pair of receivers emerge in the playcalling. Tight ends Chad Lewis and former Packer Jeff Thomason have both gained the confidence of McNabb and the coaches in close. Lewis made the Pro Bowl last season and Thomason, much like the tag on Cris Carter, just scores touchdowns. The Vikes defense will have to keep an eye on both of them, especially when the Eagles get near the goal line.
Unlike the Vikings, who are testing out new offensive tackles, the Eagles have built their offense around a pair of former first-round choices in Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas. Both are capable of blowing away pass-rushing defensive ends and giving McNabb running lanes, as well as pass protection. They're joined by guard Jermane Mayberry and converted tackle John Welbourne, and each has excelled at run blocking. If there's a weakness on the offensive line, it's at center, where Hank Fraley has been pressed into duty. Look for the Vikings to blitz up the middle and try to take advantage of this weakness — one of the few on the Eagles' offensive front.
Philadelphia's strength hasn't been on offense, it's been defense — a unit that carried the team to the playoffs last year and has an early grip on the NFC East title this year. Up front, Philly creates some problems for the Vikings' offensive line, starting with defensive ends Hugh Douglas and Brandon Whiting. Both are bull rushers who force the action and will be a tough test for Chris Liwienski and Brad Badger. In the middle, the Eagles bring Corey Simon and Hollis Thomas, who both started every game last year and have helped build a cohesive front line that has been one of the best run-stopping units in the game.
At the linebackers, the new face is second-round rookie Quinton Caver, who backs up all three linebacker spots — behind established starters Jeremiah Trotter in the middle and Mike Caldwell and Carlos Emmons on the outside. With Caver and former starter Barry Gardner providing backup support, the Eagles have a strong, aggressive linebacker corps that can raise havoc with the Vikings' short passing game and try to force Minnesota to throw deep, which could be a problem.
Few teams match up well with the Vikings' receivers, but the Eagles are a cocky group that may not provide as much double-coverage as Randy Moss and Cris Carter are used to seeing. Corners Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent were brought in initially to shut down the likes of Michael Irvin, but now they're savvy enough to play any wideouts one-on-one. Whether the Eagles coaches fear Moss and Carter enough to provide double-coverage will be a game-planning decision. If they do, they'll rely on help from safeties Damon Moore and Brian Dawkins. Dawkins is a Pro Bowl-caliber safety who has corner cover skills, while Moore is a Robert Griffith type who provides solid run support. If the Vikings are going to dent the Eagles defense, they'll have to scheme mismatches with this group that can play head up with any receiver in the league.
The Eagles are going to be a perfect team to be a litmus test for the Vikes as they come off their bye week. Much like the Saints earlier this season, the Eagles will give the Vikings a playoff-tested team with home-field advantage — a must if the Vikings are to continue their quest for a division title and another playoff appearance.
KEY OFFENSIVE MATCHUP
OT Brad Badger vs. DE Hugh Douglas — Badger has been maligned as the weakest of the Vikings' offensive linemen, but did a great job at neutralizing Green Bay sackmaster Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilla. He faces a similar challenge in Douglas, who had 15 sacks last year and provides constant pressure. For Daunte Culpepper to get time in the pocket, Badger keeping Douglas out of the backfield is a must.
KEY DEFENSIVE MATCHUP
LB Kailee Wong vs. QB Donovan McNabb — With most teams that scout the Vikings, one of the prime jobs of the middle linebacker is to keep Culpepper from breaking out of the pocket. With McNabb, the Eagles have an equally dangerous running threat in the open field, and Wong will be assigned to spy McNabb all day and make sure he doesn't have running lanes when pass protection breaks down. As the Eagles' leading rusher last year, he's obviously a dangerous threat in that regard.
Eagles Another Strong Road Test
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