The two biggest plays in the Eagles divisional round win over the Falcons had something in common, and that common something has more than a little relevance for Sunday's NFC championship against the Vikings. The two plays in question are that 21-yard end around by Nelson Agholor in the second quarter that set the Eagles up for their first touchdown of the game, and that early fourth-quarter screen pass to Jay Ajayi that led to a crucial field goal that left the Falcons needing a touchdown to win on their last drive. Setting aside any quibble about their exact place in the hierarchy of impactful events from that game, let's focus instead on the ties that bind them: (1) they both came on third down, and, (2) in the counterfactual world where the Eagles failed to convert, there's a decent chance that the Falcons are still alive and the writer of this story is in search of a column at a Phillies winter banquet in Reading.
This pertains to the matchup with the Vikings because the Vikings are a team that, throughout the season, has been every bit the Eagles equal on the game's most important down. In its dramatic final-play win over the Saints on Sunday, Minnesota moved the chains on 10 of their 18 third-down plays, including the final play itself, Stefon Diggs' miraculous catch-and-run coming after Case Keenum stepped into a deep corner throw on third and 10. On the opposite side of the ball, the Vikings held New Orleans to just two conversions on nine third down plays, creating an advantage even greater than the one the Eagles held on Saturday, when they converted on six of 13 (46.2 percent) while holding Atlanta to four of 13 (30.8 percent).
Both of these teams' divisional performances were in line with their season averages: the Vikings finished the regular season with the third-best third-down conversion rate on offense (43.3 percent), and the stingiest rate on defense (26 percent). The Eagles ranked sixth (42.2 percent), and second (32 percent).
What, exactly, any of this means is a murkier story. Consider the Vikings offense: while Keenum has made plenty of big third-down throws this season, Minnesota was actually one of the least successful teams in the league on third and long, its 21.6 percent conversion rate on third and 7+ ranking in the bottom quarter of the league. Meanwhile, the success of the Eagles' defense on first and second down left its opponents needing an average of 7.8 yards to go on third down, the fourth-best mark in the league.
"I think they have done a good job on first-and-second down, that's taken them to third," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "They roll about five deep at wide receiver. All those guys have a role, and the quarterback is a smart, veteran player that knows where to go with the ball and hasn't made a lot of mistakes."
Distance might explain a lot of the Vikings' success on offense. On defense, though, both teams' performances have transcended situation. On third and fourth or less, the Vikings defense ranked first, allowing first downs on 39.1 percent of plays, while the Eagles defense ranked fourth at 47.5 percent.
"Obviously the percentage goes down for the offense, the longer it is," Schwartz said. "But we're a pretty good rush team. We're a little bit surgical on our blitzes. We don't blitz a lot, but when they do, they are pretty effective. We don't make a lot of mental mistakes. We're a pretty good tackling team. You put those things together, you've got a pretty good chance to hold teams and our guys do a great job preparing and understanding what they are defending and how we are going to defend it. I think that has a lot to do with it."
Same goes on the offensive side of the ball, where the Eagles were the best third-and-long team in football this year.
"I think it's probably several things," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "One, the mentality that comes along with it is the amount of practice time and preparation you put into it. . .we put a lot of emphasis on it the whole off-season, during the season, and the way we prepare for it. Then it is, as you said, secondly, related to how far you have to go, which historically has always been true. But then the third thing I think is players, and this year we have some players that have really stepped up and have been making plays on that down when we really need them to step up."
This past weekend, you could see all of those factors at work, be it on the Ajayi screen, the Agholor run, or Diggs' game-winner. In particular, the two plays by the Eagles were a testament to preparation, timing and execution. Both were expertly designed, and both caught the Falcons off guard, but both also featured some excellent individual blocking efforts (and two excellent open-field runners who took advantage of the daylight).
Maybe the biggest question about how this year's NFC championship will unfold lies in the chess match exemplified by plays such as this. Schwartz vs. Shurmur. Pederson vs. Zimmer. It should be a fascinating thing to watch unfold.