A couple of months ago, fans would have looked at Sunday's matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles as a potential statement game for the Vikings – a chance to say that this is a team that can compete with the big boys of the NFC. Instead, Sunday's game feels more like a game in which the loser could be all but eliminated from playoff contention at the midseason point.
The Eagles have lost two of their three road games and, with the exception of a 56-point explosion against the Lions, the Eagles haven't scored more than 16 points in any of their other five games. The Eagles have always been an offensive Jeckyl-Hyde, but they have one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league running the show.
Donovan McNabb has been one of the league's top quarterbacks for years, but he is no longer the scrambling threat he used to be. Through six games, he has rushed just 17 times for 56 yards and no touchdowns. He has become much more of a pocket passer over the last couple of seasons and is very efficient at what he does. He has completed almost 60 percent of his passes (122 of 205) for 1,447 yards with seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. However, he has been under fire in the pocket. He has been sacked 23 times – granted, half of those came in one game vs. the Giants – and he isn't the elusive threat he was earlier in his career. He likely isn't going to throw interceptions, so the Vikings will need to get pressure on him early and often. If he has time to pick the defense apart, he will.
The running game, as always, is led by Brian Westbrook. Arguably the most versatile running back in the league, Westbrook leads the team in rushing with a 5.5-yard average (89 carries for 490 yards) and is also the leading receiver with 31 receptions. He's on pace for more than 2,000 total yards and is capable of having monstrous multi-touchdown days in which he rushes and receives for 100 yards or more. While he is a three-down back, he is spelled by Correll Buckhalter. Used sparingly – about nine rushes a game – Buckhalter is also averaging more than 5 yards a carry and is a nice change of pace to Westbrook's outside speed. Rookie Tony Hunt was thought to be the ideal goal-line back, but he has scored just one TD and has only nine carries. Former University of Minnesota star Thomas Tapeh is the starting fullback, but his job is almost exclusively as a blocker, not a threat as a rusher or receiver.
The last time the Vikings played the Eagles, Terrell Owens was the big man on campus. But then again, the last time they played Brad Childress was the offensive coordinator. Neither of them remain in those roles, but the Eagles still have some weapons in the passing game. Kevin Curtis, who made his offseason decision in free agency to take a little less money to go the Eagles instead of Minnesota, has proved to be worth his contract thus far. He has 29 catches and a team-leading 504 yards receiving and four of McNabb's seven touchdown catches. His speed and precise route-running make him a dangerous threat. He wasn't supposed to be the go-to receiver, however. That was supposed to be Reggie Brown. Entering his third year, when many wide receivers make the jump from being good to being great, Brown has seemingly regressed. He has caught just 17 passes – less than three a game – and hasn't scored a touchdown yet. He's one of those players that is due for a breakout game and the Vikings hope it comes next week, not this week. The backups are thin with cup-of-coffee Viking Hank Baskett, second-year man Jason Avant and veteran Greg Lewis providing backup assistance. While each has a niche in the offense, none of them have had any truly standout games this season. A piece of good news for the Eagles arrived with the return to practice of tight end L.J. Smith, who has been sidelined most of the season due to injury. A threat down the seam and in the red zone, Smith is the type of tight end that has historically caused the Vikings problems. Matt Schobel has filled in and is a solid blocker that plays in the many two-tight end sets the Eagles employ.
One of the biggest issues the Eagles have faced has been up front on the line. The O-line has failed to adequately protect McNabb and he has been sacked too many times for his coach's liking. The biggest issue has been at right tackle, where Jon Runyan has been battling injuries – the most recent of which being a bizarre bathtub injury in the trainer's room in which he injured his tailbone. The Eagles have a mixed bag of experience on the corners and youth in the middle with Runyan and left tackle William Thomas, in their 12th and 10th seasons respectively, and guards Todd Herremans (3rd year) and Shawn Andrews (4th year), as well as center Jamaal Jackson (4th year). They have the skill to be dominant run blockers and the size to give McNabb protection in the passing game. As a team, the Eagles have been erratic and this unit is one of the reasons. With their willingness to abandon the run for long stretches of games, it is going to be critical for this group to hold up against the Vikings pass rush. If they don't, McNabb will find out often how the Metrodome turf feels against the skin.
While the Eagles offense has been erratic, the defense has done its part to win games for Philadelphia. The Eagles haven't allowed more than 21 points in any of their games despite some poor offensive performances that had them on the field a lot. The Jim Johnson defense has been in place so long that when someone leaves – and many have over the last three or four years – it rarely seems to miss a beat. Up front, the Eagles have a budding star in Trent Cole. A third-year pro, he has notched seven of the Eagles' 20 sacks from right end spot and has relegated former Pro Bowler Jevon Kearse to second-fiddle status. The eminently talented Kearse has been plagued by injuries for much of his career, but when he's on, he can be a true difference-maker. In the middle, the Eagles have invested heavily in getting an interior push in the draft. In the 2005 draft, they used a first-round pick on Mike Patterson. In 2006, they used their first-rounder on Brodrick Bunkley. Patterson has developed into a solid player, but Bunkley has been one of the big question marks of the defense. Patterson has developed into the kind of disruptive tackle Johnson's defense needs, but Bunkley spent much of his rookie season on the sidelines because he isn't a dedicated practice player. He's still learning to play at full-game speed and can be thrown around at times because he doesn't dig on low enough to get consistent leverage. The Vikings O-line will have a tall order neutralizing this group, but the aggressiveness all of them show will allow for the Vikings to get them out of position for big gainers.
The key to the Eagles defense has always been its linebackers. A relentless blitzing unit, the Eagles come from all angle, and time their blitzes extremely well. They're also one of the few teams that completely reconfigures its blitz packages from one week to the next. Seeing it on film from the Chicago game will be little help on Sunday. The biggest change is no longer having Jeremiah Trotter in the middle. Trotter was a game-changer in his time, but he's out of the picture and the team has moved on with one of the weaker units the Eagles have started in recent years. Takeo Spikes is the best of the group, but he has been slowed with injuries. In the middle, Omar Gaither is in his second season and has been asked to be a full-time starter. While he has a great motor and chases plays down, he bites on fakes and draws and gets washed out of plays he should be in position to make. On the strong side, Chris Gocong is a converted defensive end who spent his rookie season on injured reserve. He has a great size-speed combination, but is very inexperienced. With as much as the Eagles like to blitz, none of the three starters has recorded a sack this season. This is a group that has been a hallmark of the Eagles defense, but is probably at its most vulnerable in years and is one that can be taken advantage of.
The secondary has been a strength of the defense and, when healthy, it still is. But health has been a big concern. Cornerback Lito Sheppard returned to action last week and was a huge contributor in a tight game with the Bears. Sheppard and fellow cornerback Sheldon Brown are one of the top starting tandems in the league. Often forced into lockdown coverage because of the number of blitzes the Eagles run, both have stood tall. Brown has a couple of interceptions and some offenses rarely even to try to beat Sheppard deep. At safety, Brian Dawkins has been a Pro Bowl player and defensive leader, but he's been sidelined due to injury and won't play Sunday – converting what was a defensive strength into a weakness. Fourth-year free-agent signee J.R. Reed takes his place and is a huge step down. He is flanked by Sean Considine – a third-year man with neither exceptional size, speed nor hitting ability. Teams have routinely thrown at or around him and he has a bulls eye on him in the Vikings coaching room this week. With Sheppard at less than 100 percent and Dawkins out, the Vikings will likely give Kelly Holcomb the chance to air things out deep.
The Eagles special teams are led by kicker David Akers. While Akers is just 2-of-5 beyond 40 yards kicking field goals this year, he has scored 50 of the Eagles' 116 points. He is a clutch kicker who, if the game is tight, can be counted on to hit the game-winner as time expires.
The Eagles in many ways have the same look as the Vikings. They have offenses that have been low-scoring and erratic and defensives that have carried through many of their lean times. This is the type of game that has 19-16 written all over it and, for the sake of both teams, they really need to be the team with 19 or their playoff hopes may be all but dead.