Minnesota Vikings (5-0) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-2)
Sunday, Oct. 23, 1 p.m. (FOX)
The Vikings come off their bye with the lone undefeated record in the NFL, starting a stretch of three of the next four games on the road. Dubbed the showdown between Sam Bradford and rookie Carson Wentz, Minnesota is eyeing its first 6-0 start since 2009. Let’s take a deeper dive into this week’s matchup.
Betting line: Minnesota -2.5; O/U 40. Las Vegas might as well call the Vikings its daddy at this point. Minnesota is 19 of the last 22 against the odds makers and are likely to be favored in every game the rest of the season. The line hasn’t moved much during the week and I think it is fair one. Sunday is being billed as the Bradford revenge game but the matchup is more about two, stout defenses. Forty points might be tough to reach considering the Vikings are coming off a bye with an extra week to prepare for Wentz. The money line (-155) doesn’t do much for me considering the spread.
Eagle Defense: The Eagle defense has been one of the better units in the NFL thus far, led by new defensive coordinator Jim Swartz. Its strength rests in the defensive line anchored by Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Bennie Logan and Connor Barwin (to some extent). Cox and Graham are two of the highest graded players at their, respective positions, according to Pro Football Focus. Swartz will definitely key on the weak right-side of the Vikings offensive line, moving Cox and Graham around to create different matchups. Philly doesn’t usually commit extra rushers to the blitz, preferring to get pressure from its front four. However the Eagles may be without Logan who is questionable.
Linebacker Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham have played well this season while Mychal Kendricks (brother of Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks) is questionable. Much like the Vikings, Philadelphia has done a good job of creating turnovers (8 in total), helping the offense to a +6 turnover ratio.
Corners Ron Brooks and Leodis McKelvin are both listed as questionable, weakening a secondary that’s fourth in the league in pass defense (207.4 yards per game).
Eagle Offense: The Eagles clearly saw something in Wentz when they pulled the trigger on the Bradford trade just eight days before the regular season kicked off. The rookie has been impressive, posting the 10th-best passer rating (99.9), completing 65 percent of his passes for 237.2 yards per game with seven touchdowns and just one interception. He is averaging about 7.6 yards per attempt and PFF has Wentz ranked as the second-highest quarterback grade at 90.9. Much of Wentz’s success has come in the short-passing game and screen game, something new head coach Doug Pederson brought over from his days under Andy Reid in Kansas City.
The receiving trio of Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham in theory should present some matchup problems, but the trio has been prone to drops and under achieving. The ground game is spearheaded by Ryan Mathews so has received about 50 percent of the team’s carries. Mathews late-game fumble against Detroit cost the Eagles and chance at a 4-0 start. Darren Sproles is still shifty and a tough matchup in the screen game and a dangerous punt returner but it is rookie Wendell Smallwood who could be the most explosive. Smallwood has already showed his big-play ability with an 86-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and is likely to start see a bigger role on offense.
However the major storyline for the Eagles today is the loss of starting right tackle Lance Johnson. Johnson has been an all-pro caliber tackle but has been suspended for 10 games after testing positive for banned substances. His replacement— rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Vaitai was given a grade of 39 by PFF following his first start last week against Washington. Center Jason Kelce has been battling injuries and is having one the worst seasons of his six-year career. Guards Allen Barbre and Brandon Brooks have been solid, according to PFF and perennial Pro Bowler Jason Peters has remained steady at left tackle
Viking Defense: I’m still not sure what type of bizzaro world we are living in. The Vikings aren’t good on defense, they’re great on defense, elite even. Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Eli Manning have all looked lost. Linval Joseph has the defense stuffing the run, something it didn’t do so well a year ago. Harrison Smith, Terence Newman, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes make up a secondary unit that ranks first in the NFL according to PFF. Everon Griffen, Tom Johnson, Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter are getting all sorts of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Eric Kendricks is getting more and more comfortable and Anthony Barr continues to be freakish from his outside linebacker spot.
Minnesota is first in scoring defense (12.6), second in yards allowed (287.6), third in sacks (19), limiting teams to just 3.5 yards per first-down play and leading the league in turnover differential (+11). We could go on and on about this unit, but giving Mike Zimmer two weeks to scheme for an opponent almost seems unfair. Let’s all just sit back and enjoy.
Viking Offense: The natural storyline is going to be Bradford’s return Philadelphia. Will he be over hyped? Will his knowledge of the Eagles’ schemes help or hurt his performance? Those are all sexy headlines that drive traffic but on Sunday this one is all about the Vikings offensive line holding up against the tough front of the Eagles.
Much like Philadelphia, the Vikings are well aware of how backup tackles can hinder the offensive attack. Minnesota brought in Jake Long during the bye week to help patch some of the holes. Still no word if he’ll start or how much he’ll play but the expectation is he’ll eventually be in there and be some sort of an upgrade over TJ Clemmings.
The question then becomes who is the odd-man out on the line? Does Clemmings shift back to right tackle or does Jeremiah Sirles hold that spot down? Personally I’d leave Sirles in there but who am i?
The line not only needs to keep Bradford upright but must get the Minnesota ground game going against a defense which is banged up and hasn’t had as much a success against the run as it has the pass.
Stefon Diggs appears set to return to action after missing the Texans game while Vikings fans are still pining to see first-round pick Laquon Treadwell get significant work. Coming off the bye, maybe now Treadwell is finally ready to go. Not having Treadwell out there has been mitigated by the reemergence of Cordarrelle Patterson. The former first rounder has worked his way back into the coaching staff’s good graces and is seeing significant time. Sure Patterson still has his flaws but he is so dynamic and explosive, it requires opposing teams to put in extra game planning to slow him.
Kyle Rudolph will have a tough matchup with Jordan Hicks but still remains the Vikings No. 1 target in the red zone.
Why I’m nervous: On paper there really isn’t anything that scares me, which is why I’m absolutely terrified. Coming off a bye, on the road, against an inferior team is exactly the type of game the Vikings have lost in the past. This Eagle defense is solid, especially at home. Sure what Wentz is doing isn’t record breaking, but he if he can be solid and not turn the ball over he is going to give them a chance.
Why I’m overly confident: Remember what I said about this is the game the Vikings historically lose? Well that was before Mike Zimmer. There is a zero-percent chance Zimmer allows his guys to come out flat or over confident on Sunday. This defense, with two weeks to prepare, is going to smother Wentz and the Philadelphia offense. Jake Long is going to be help calm the storm on the offensive line, Jerick McKinnon is going to get rolling, Patterson and Diggs are going to make some big plays against banged-up secondary. Bradford doesn’t try to do too much and the Vikings cruise.
Prediction: I was far more apprehensive early in the week but I think this is a touchdown game. The Vikings defense is going to give the Eagles fits and while the offense will struggle at times, they have enough playmakers to exploit the Philadelphia injuries. Vikings improve to 6-0 with a 24-13 win.