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Vikings, Eagles square off for NFC title, and familiarity may breed contempt


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SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports NFL insider Jarrett Bell attempts to put into words the unbelievable finish in Minnesota, and how important situational football meant in a weekend of classic games.
USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Eagles will play the Minnesota Vikings for the NFC championship, just as we expected all along.

Or … not.

Eagles and Vikings fans probably didn’t see this coming when the season began. Or even last month. Heck, Vikings fans probably had their doubts Sunday night.

Yet here they both are, one game away from the Super Bowl despite injuries that should have derailed their title hopes.

With Carson Wentz out of the equation, the Eagles and Vikings are very similar teams. And I’m not referring to their abysmal showings in the Super Bowl (a combined 0-6, for those keeping track).

Minnesota and Philadelphia both have stingy, tone-setting defenses. Minnesota led the league in both total defense (275.9 yards per game) and scoring defense (15.8 points a game), with Philadelphia not far behind.  

The Eagles were fourth in both total defense (306.5 yards) and scoring (18.4), while leading the league with 79.2 yards rushing allowed per game.

More: Vikings stun Saints with last-second TD to advance to NFC Championship Game

More: Jaguars’ AFC Championship Game hopes vs. Patriots come down to defense, Blake Bortles

“Defense wins championships,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said after Philadelphia held off Atlanta 15-10 on Saturday night. “It’s cliché, but it’s true.”

Particularly with these teams.

Nick Foles is not a quarterback who leads a team to the Super Bowl. He’s one that doesn’t get in its way. The Eagles are 3-1 since Wentz was injured even though Foles’ impact has often been marginal.

Take the 15-10 victory over Atlanta in the divisional round Saturday night. Foles didn’t throw any touchdown passes, but he didn’t throw any interceptions, either. Rather than risky plays that could end up on the highlight reel for all the wrong reasons, he relies heavily on the catch and run. Smart, given that he’s got targets like Jay Ajayi and Zach Ertz who can chew up yardage once the ball is in their hands. Against the Falcons, the Eagles’ longest play was Ajayi’s 32-yard catch — which was more like 7 yards of catch and 25 yards of run. 

Case Keenum has heard similar criticisms throughout his career. (Fun fact: He took the starting job from Foles in 2015 when they were with the Rams, only to eventually be benched in favor of Jared Goff, who was drafted one spot ahead of Wentz.)

Keenum was never Minnesota’s first choice, starting only because Sam Bradford got hurt in Week 1, and Teddy Bridgewater was still recovering from his devastating knee injury. Keenum might as well have been on the NFL’s version of double secret probation all season — a season in which he finished second in the league in completion percentage and led the Vikings to their second division title in eight seasons, I might add.

When Bradford made a brief return in Week 5 against the Bears, there was no question about who would get the start — even though it was quickly evident that Bradford wasn’t ready to play. 

But Keenum is much better than he’s been given credit for, a fact brought into sharp relief Sunday. After blowing a 17-point, third-quarter lead, he and the Vikings watched the Saints kick a go-ahead field goal with 25 seconds left. Those are situations made for quarterbacks named Brees, Brady and Rodgers. Not Keenum. 

With the Vikings just hoping to get into field goal range, Keenum found Stefon Diggs for a 61-yard touchdown. Dismissed as little more than a game manager, he managed the final seconds of the game brilliantly. 

Now the question is whether Keenum can be the difference again, in an outdoor stadium that’s among the most hostile in the NFL. Or will it be Foles who rewrites his history?

Eagles vs. Vikings, Foles vs. Keenum. Yep, exactly what we expected to see. 

***

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour

PHOTOS: NFL divisional playoff action

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