The tickets are sold, the blackout has been averted, now we can forget about all that silly drama and concentrate on the game – the first playoff game in the Metrodome since January 6, 2001 when the Vikings knocked off the New Orleans Saints 34-16 to advance to the NFC Championship Game (where they would be destroyed by the Giants 41-0). The Eagles come into town as the favorite (which may not be much of a blessing given the way road favorites handled their business yesterday), leaving the Vikings as underdogs once again. This home dog status, it seems to me, is based largely on two factors: 1) The way the Eagles played down the stretch, especially against Dallas; and, 2) The relative playoff experience levels of the two starting quarterbacks.
The main argument in the Vikings’ favor, besides the presence of Adrian Peterson who has the talent and desire to carry the team on any given day, is Philly’s propensity to mix a complete choking dog-like performance in when you least expect it. The most notorious of these unaccountable egg-layings took place November 16 when they tied the Cincinnati Bengals and the whole world found out Donovan McNabb doesn’t know the overtime rules. They followed this up with perhaps an even more putrid performance, losing 36-7 to the Ravens in a game which saw McNabb getting benched and Kevin Kolb briefly ascending to the lead quarterback position many thought he has been destined to assume ever since he was drafted. Unfortunately for Kolb, he didn’t play any better than McNabb, and Donovan ended up returning as QB the following week. A newly-motivated McNabb helped his team rattle off 4 wins the last 5 weeks, culminating in a 44-6 annihilation of the Cowboys to clinch the 6th and final NFC playoff berth.
We know McNabb is a great quarterback, and that he has vastly more playoff experience than Tarvaris Jackson, who will in fact be making his post-season debut today (without ever having played in so much as a bowl game in college, since he went to Alabama State). We also know that McNabb is not as mobile as he used to be which makes him a somewhat easier target for Jared Allen and the boys up there on the defensive line. The formula for the Vikes against experienced, accomplished quarterbacks this year has been to apply large amounts of pressure and beat them down. This worked pretty well early in the season against Jake Delhomme, who got frustrated and yelled at his teammates even more than usual, and it worked really well against Kurt Warner who looked as befuddled as a dementia patient by the time the Vikes were done with his old carcass. The older QB who gave us the most trouble was Jeff Garcia, but of course he is still a guy who can scramble and make plays, unlike Delhomme, Warner and, these days, McNabb, all guys who mostly stay in the pocket.
The biggest weapon in McNabb’s arsenal is, of course, Brian Westbrook. The latter-day Marshall Faulk had an up-and-down season in 2008: He finished with solid enough stats – 1340 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns (9 rushing, 5 receiving) – but missed two games with injury and had a few glaringly sub-par performances (notably against the Ravens when he ran for only 39 yards and caught only 2 balls for -5). Westbrook would seem to present a particular problem for the Vikings who like to leave their safeties back to guard against the deep ball and tend to allow big games by underneath receivers, tight ends and good receiving backs. The game that sticks out to me as a red flag is the one against Jacksonville where Maurice Jones-Drew caught 9 balls for 113 yards. The over-the-middle stuff seemed like it was open all day for David Garrard and the Jags, and the only saving grace was that the Vikes managed to keep Jones-Drew out of the end zone (plus the Jags kept shooting themselves in the foot, which is why we won). Westbrook is a much more accomplished receiver than Jones-Drew and more of a threat to take one or two of those short passes and break them for scores. I’m guessing our zone coverage isn’t going to be any less soft than it normally is, which means Westbrook will get his catches and our guys will have to get him on the ground as quickly as possible to avoid a gashing.
I’m actually not all that concerned about how the Purple defense will play today against Philly: I’m certain Westbrook will get his yards and McNabb will have a solid game, but I’m also sure that we’ll be able to minimize big plays and get enough pressure on McNabb to keep him from going crazy on us. What does concern me is how our offense will perform against what is, by most measures, one of the very best defenses in the NFL. Jim Johnson, as we all know, is a master defensive schemer who loves to throw all sorts of blitzes at quarterbacks…and we have Tarvaris Jackson playing his first playoff game ever. Were you to make a list of the worst teams for a QB to be making his post-season debut against, it’s possible you would put Philly at the very top. And, let’s face it, Tarvaris is not always the calmest, most assured fellow back there (especially when his coaches don’t seem to know what they’re doing either). I don’t want to put too much pressure on T-Jack, but…if the Vikings want to win this game, Jackson will have to play better than he has ever played at any point in his life. I love Adrian Peterson as much as the next person and I want to believe in his ability to just take over this game, but the fact is that Adrian has been playing on a bad ankle, and he’s been having confidence issues stemming from and perhaps contributing back into his fumbling (that’s what you call a vicious circle). In other words, I don’t think we can just put it all on AD – Tarvaris has to have a big game for us to win. And the only way that happens is if our offensive line protects better than it has been…and if the game-plan works in Chester Taylor, Bernard Berrian and Visanthe Shiancoe (Yes I know it’s asking a lot for this team to get the ball to three different guys in the same game, but it should be possible. One suggestion would be to cut back on the two yard tosses in the flat to Naufahu Tahi. It’s also okay to mix in a trick play.).
We could sit here all day and go over what we think will happen or hope will happen, but of course, in the end, the game will unfold in a completely surprising way, and stuff will go down that we never saw coming. The unpredictability of the NFL was demonstrated again yesterday when the Arizona Cardinals, hapless in the running game all year, stunned the Falcons by conjuring an effective ground game; and then in the evening when the heavy underdog San Diego Chargers defeated the mighty Indianapolis Colts despite LaDainian Tomlinson‘s traditional playoff punk-out. If the Vikings win it will probably be because someone we never thought about rose up and played huge. Sidney Rice maybe. Or perhaps Tahi will find himself wide open in the flat and house one. Or maybe Maurice Hicks will run a kick-off back for a touchdown or Darren Sharper will finally run back an interception despite being old and useless. Who knows what craziness is in store for us today at 3:30. The only thing I know for sure is that, win or lose, everyone will still hate Brad Childress.