After coming into Lambeau Field and handing the Packers just their second home playoff loss in franchise history, the Vikings now find themselves facing an even more daunting task — the Philadelphia Eagles. For most of the 2004 season, the Eagles appeared to be a team on a mission. After failing three times in the NFC Championship game — the last two at home — the Eagles added Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse to get over the hump. With Owens gone and the Eagles having not played their starters for almost a month, there will be questions surrounding their effectiveness this weekend.
At the middle of the controversy will be quarterback Donovan McNabb. Coming off a career year, McNabb led the Eagles to a 13-1 record before sitting down the final two weeks. He has the combination of touch on short passes, the ability to cut loose on the bomb and, as always, his innate scrambling ability. With more pressure being put on him to succeed, the Vikings can expect a game plan designed around McNabb.
With Owens out, the onus of the offense has shifted to running back Brian Westbrook. Part of a committee setup last year, with Duce Staley gone and Correll Buckhalter injured, Westbrook became the only show in town and responded — rushing for more than 800 yards in 14 games and pulling in 73 passes for more than 700 yards receiving. With former Packer Dorsey Levens used as a short-yardage and situational back, the Eagles will look to control the clock with big doses of Westbrook and smaller doses of Levens in hopes of keeping the Vikings offense off the field.
The biggest question will be centered around the receivers. Owens was the go-to guy from the day he arrived, but now the attack has been forced to revert to the guys that failed to get the job done the last couple of seasons. Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell thrived as the Nos. 2 and 3 receivers, but now they have to kick it up a notch — a position Pinkston struggled to master last year by short-arming passes to avoid big hits. If he can't be successful, Andy Reid won't hesitate to give more time to backups Greg Lewis and Billy McMullen. To make up for some of the slack, expect to see a lot of passes to the Eagles' talented tight ends — veteran Chad Lewis and youngster L.J. Smith. At times, both have been McNabb's No. 1 target, especially in the red zone and, with the Vikings' struggles against pass-catching tight ends late in the season, they could be a key.
One thing that hasn't changed is an impressive offensive front. The only missing piece is rookie Shawn Andrews, who was lost for the season at right guard. That has caused some shifting of roles, with left guard Jermaine Mayberry moving to right guard and Artis Hicks moving into a starting role on the left side. They're joined by Pro Bowl tackles Tra Thomas and John Runyan and workmanlike center Hank Fraley to build a foundation that has protected McNabb and opened running lanes for Westbrook. If the Vikings are to succeed, they will need to collapse the interior of the Eagles front line.
While the Eagles offense has struggled without Owens, the defense remained the most AFC-like unit in the NFC this season. That all starts up front, and the Eagles have the horses to make the Vikings' offensive linemen very concerned. Kearse is the showpiece of the group at left end, where he joins tackles Corey Simon and Darwin Walker and end Derrick Burgess to form an impressive front four that has depth as well. If one of the starters needs a rest or the situation calls for it, the Eagles can fall back on tackles Hollis Thomas and Sam Rayburn and ends Hugh Douglas and the return of the previously injured Jerome McDougle. These linemen come at opponents in waves, and the Vikings will have to get a very strong effort from their offensive linemen to prevent the kind of jailbreaks Daunte Culpepper faced against the Redskins in the regular-season finale.
The defense doesn't weaken as it gets farther from the line of scrimmage. The Vikings had a chance to sign linebacker Jeremiah Trotter after he was released last offseason but instead stuck with their own unproven LBs. The Eagles are appreciative, since Trotter came back to Philly for a minimum contract and earned his way to the Pro Bowl at middle linebacker. He's flanked by Dhani Jones and Mark Simoneau — both of whom have excellent speed and instincts to the ball. With Simoneau expected to be sidelined for this game, Keith Adams will get the start and backed up by former starter Nate Wayne.
There were many concerns about the secondary when the season began, since the Eagles let former Pro Bowl cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor leave via free agency. In their place, Lito Sheppard earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl and Sheldon Brown has been surprisingly solid all season. At safety, Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis are tough as nails and dare people to throw over the middle, with each of the safeties making the Pro Bowl. These players all are capable of changing a game with one play and believe they have the Vikings' number.
The pressure is off the Vikings for this game. They know they're a prohibitive underdog and can play with nothing to lose. The Eagles, on the other hand, are looking to make a statement at the expense of the Vikings. The Vikings will need to play a near-perfect game because Philly is looking past them in search of the Super Bowl rings they've been so close to attaining the last four years.
JEVON KEARSE vs. DAUNTE CULPEPPER — Any time you have a pass-rushing defensive end who can terrorize opposing quarterbacks going against a QB who has the best passer rating in the conference, you would already have the makings for a key matchup. But Daunte Culpepper and Jevon Kearse have a history that makes this matchup even more special.
Turn back the clock to April 1999. The Vikings were fresh off their best season in team history, having gone 15-1 in 1998. The previous year, they had taken a rookie wide receiver in the first round of the draft with the nickname "The Freak" (Randy Moss). There was another player with the same nickname available (Kearse) when the Vikings made their first-round pick in 1999. Nearly everyone in the Vikings war room was screaming to take Kearse — many thought he would be the missing ingredient to getting the Vikings to the Super Bowl. Instead, Denny Green, who wielded all draft authority, said the team needed a franchise quarterback and took Culpepper.
That same year, the Eagles drafted Donovan McNabb to lead their team into the new decade and, despite trying to work a trade to still get Kearse, he went to the Titans and the Vikings used their second first-round pick to select Dimitrius Underwood.
While hindsight proved that Green was correct in his assessment of Culpepper's value, the Vikings defense since 1999 has been ranked near the bottom of the NFC. Kearse, meanwhile, dominated his position in the AFC when healthy and came to Philly as a free agent last year as the Eagles' missing piece to a Super Bowl puzzle.
Both Kearse and Culpepper were brought to their respective teams with one goal — leading each to a Super Bowl title. To date, neither has gotten it done, but both are closer now than they've been in a long time. Kearse is a hired gun brought in to neutralize the guy the Vikings took instead of him in the 1999 draft, while Culpepper is bent on proving to everyone that the Vikings made the right decision, making this the playoff matchup to watch.
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