Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Conference Championship Picks and Predictions

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 18, 2018

Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Conference Championship Picks and Predictions

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The NFL's final four is set. 

    After one of the wilder divisional rounds in recent memory, the matchups are set for the AFC and NFC Championship Games. And what a couple of matchups they are.

    On the AFC side, it's David vs. Goliath. After shocking the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the Jacksonville Jaguars are one short step from the first Super Bowl in franchise history.

    That step, however, takes the team to Gillette Stadium, where the Jags will face a New England Patriots team angling for its third Super Bowl in four years and eighth appearance of the Brady/Belichick era.

    Eight! Sheesh.

    On the NFC side, the Minnesota Vikings are coming off one of the nuttiest finishes in playoff history. The Vikings will head east to face the Philadelphia Eagles in a meeting of teams with formidable defenses and quarterbacks who opened the season with clipboards in their hands.

    Win, and the Vikings will become the first team in NFL history to play for the Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium. 

    It has the makings of a pair of outstanding football games.

    As has been the case the past several years here at Bleacher Report, we've gathered the NFL gang together to offer takes on how the games will pan out.

    Will the Patriots once again represent the AFC, or will the Jaguars pull off the upset? Do the Vikings have another huge play up their sleeves, or will the top-seeded Eagles reach the Super Bowl for a third time?

    Here's what that pack of pigskin pundits had to say.

Roll Call

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Before we get the festivities underway, let's take a moment to meet our panelists.

    Gary Davenport, analyst

    Tyler Dunne, features lead writer

    Mike Freeman, national Lead writer

    Brad Gagnon, analyst

    Matt Miller, national Lead writer

    Dan Pompei, national Lead writer

    Brent Sobleski, analyst

    Mike Tanier, national Lead writer

    Sean Tomlinson, analyst

AFC Championship: No. 3 Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 1 New England Patriots

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    When: Sunday, Jan. 21, 3:05 p.m. ET

    Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

    TV: CBS

    Line (per OddsShark): New England -9.5

    They say defense wins championships. The history of the Super Bowl is littered with teams that have ridden dominant defenses all the way to a Lombardi Trophy—most recently the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 a couple of years back.

    That adage is about to be put to a huge test.

    The Jacksonville Jaguars aren't one game away from their first Super Bowl because of rookie tailback Leonard Fournette. Or quarterback Blake Bortles.

    No, the Jaguars are having one of the best seasons in franchise history because of their outstanding defense.

    The Jaguars led the NFL in passing defense in the regular season by allowing just 169.9 yards per game—over 22 fewer yards than the next closest team. The Jags led the AFC in total defense and scoring defense and ranked second in the NFL with 55 sacks in the regular season.

    Cornerback Jalen Ramsey (who most assuredly is not shy) told reporters (h/t ESPN) that the Jaguars aren't about to shy away from the challenge they face Sunday.

    "Talking is cool. You can do all the talking you want on Twitter, to the media, all of that, but when you get on the field, you're going to have produce," Ramsey said. "You're going to have to show us what you're really about. We're confident because we know the work we put in. We know the blessings the lord has given us. We're going to go out here confident. We're going to go out there swagged up."

    Ramsey then went further: "We are going to the Super Bowl and we are going to win that b---h ." 

    Confidence aside, Ramsey and the Jaguars would be well-served to take things one step at a time. Because the next step is a lulu.

    There's not a lot left to say about the New England Patriots that hasn't already been said. Sunday marks the 12th time that Tom Brady will lead the Patriots into an AFC Championship Game. The team is 7-4 in such contests and 5-1 at home.

    The Patriots have played in seven AFC title games in a row.

    New England's offense presents a true litmus test for the Jaguars defensively. The Patriots led the NFL in total offense and finished second in the league in both passing offense and scoring offense.

    They dismantled the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round and quieted rumors of a rift between owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick.

    Brady told Tyler Sullivan of 247 Sports that he and the Pats are totally focused on the task at hand.

    "I think the thing is that we don't really take it for granted around here," he said. "I know how hard it is to get to this game. We're very blessed to do it. It takes a lot of things, a lot of good fortune, a lot of hard work, but obviously a lot of great blessings. I think our team has proven over the course of the year we can win important games against good teams."

    It's experience versus youth. Offense versus defense. Upstarts eyeing an all-time upset against the most accomplished team in the history of the NFL.

Jaguars' Keys to Victory

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    Logan Bowles/Getty Images

    The Jacksonville Jaguars head to Gillette Stadium as the most confident underdogs we've seen in a while. But if the Jaguars are going to pull off an upset for the ages and make Jalen Ramsey's boasts come true, the team needs to achieve the following goals.


    Four on the Floor

    Beating the Patriots in the playoffs is a tall order. Doing so in Foxborough is nigh impossible. But whether it was the New York Giants in the Super Bowl or the Baltimore Ravens in the 2012 AFC title game at Gillette, teams that have had postseason success against the Pats share something in common: an ability to get in Tom Brady's face with regularity—and without blitzing.

    In this regard, the Jaguars match up well with New England. In ends Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue and tackles Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson, the Jaguars may have the best front four in the NFL. Throw in defensive end Dante Fowler and that quintet combined for 42.5 of Jacksonville's 55 sacks this season.

    If the Jaguars can pressure Brady without sending extra guys, there will be fewer holes in the coverage for Brady to potentially exploit—and a better chance that the Jaguars win the game.


    Keep It Simple for Bortles

    There's little doubt that Blake Bortles isn't going to win a shootout with Brady. There's even less doubt that the Jaguars will attempt to lean on Leonard Fournette and the run game offensively. But there are going to be times when Bortles will have to make a play without committing the sort of back-breaking mistake that could doom the Jags.

    The Jaguars need to keep things relatively simple in the passing game. Don't run complex routes that take time to develop and offer Bortles multiple reads. That just gives him added opportunities to make the wrong one.

    We'll probably see a game plan similar to what the Jaguars implemented in the divisional round, when they used play action in an effort to both simplify Bortles' reads and the defensive fronts he saw.

    The Jaguars aren't going to outscheme Bill Belichick. So don't try. Just outexecute them.


    All Hail Coughlin

    The Jaguars' best season in a decade coincided with the arrival of Tom Coughlin as the team's vice president of football operations. Doug Marrone may be the head coach, but in many respects, it's Coughlin's personality that shines through with the Jaguars—especially on the defensive side of the ball.

    As the Jags prepare for their first AFC Championship Game since 1999, Marrone would be well-served to pick the brain of the man who was the head coach of the Jaguars in that game.

    Mostly because of what happened in the intervening years.

    Coughlin has accomplished something that no other coach in NFL history can claim. He slayed the dragon. Beat the Belichick/Brady Patriots in the Super Bowl…


    It was Coughlin's New York Giants who pulled off what many consider the biggest upset in NFL playoff history, denying the Patriots a perfect season back in 2007 by stunning New England in Super Bowl XLII.

    This isn't to say that in the biggest game of his coaching career, Doug Marrone should let another guy draw up the game plan. But if Coughlin has any suggestions, Marrone better take notes.

Patriots' Keys to Victory

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    The prevailing sentiment this week is that in order for the New England Patriots to win their third AFC Championship in four years, the team just needs to show up.

    Of course, most of the people saying that offered a similar sentiment about the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.

    Here are a few things the Patriots need to do successfully if they're going to win.


    Stack Attack

    If there's one glaring priority for the New England Patriots defensively, it's shutting down Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars ground game.

    Insert Captain Obvious joke here.

    The Jags ran the ball more than any team in the NFL in 2017—527 times, to be exact. That was 26 times more than the Minnesota Vikings, who were the only other team in the NFL with 500 rushing attempts.

    However, stacking the box is about more than just stopping the NFL's most potent rushing attack. Much of what the Jaguars do through the air is based on play action that's much more effective when defenses have to respect the run fake.

    If the Patriots can win at the point of attack both against Fournette and the Jaguars' less-than-imposing wideouts, Blake Bortles will be forced into longer down-and-distance situations. Those situations mean Bortles holding the ball longer.

    And Bortles holding the ball longer ups the chances of mistakes.


    Be Cool

    Jacksonville is entering this game riding a wave of emotion. It is brash and pumped up. Plenty was said by the players after they beat a Steelers team they felt disrespected by.

    The Patriots aren't about to offer up the sort of bulletin-board material the Steelers did. Not on Darth Hoodie's watch.

    They can also use that emotion and exuberance against the Jaguars.

    This may be a new experience for Jacksonville, but it's the exact opposite for the Patriots. Where the Jaguars will be all kinds of fired up, the Pats will surely be their even-keeled selves.

    Get the Jaguars overpursuing on a misdirection play or draw an early penalty, and the Patriots could be staked to an early lead that will only ratchet up the pressure on the Jaguars that much more.


    Run to Set Up the Pass

    There wasn't a team in the NFL better at shutting down the pass in 2017 than the Jaguars. Jacksonville gave up just 17 touchdown passes all season.

    However, the Jaguars were a below-average defense against the run. They ranked 21st in the NFL in that regard by surrendering 116.2 yards per contest.

    The Patriots don't have a reputation as a running team, and New England has some injuries in the offensive backfield. But the Pats were pretty effective on the ground in 2017. They racked up 118.1 yards per game—10th in the league.

    The Jaguars don't employ a lot of exotic defensive looks. They line up in either man coverage or the Cover 3 and just try to beat you.

    But if Dion Lewis and the ground game get going, the Jaguars pass-rushers may bite for a fraction of a second on a play fake. The Jacksonville secondary might hesitate, if only for the blink of an eye, which is all Tom Brady needs.

The Pick

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    Stew Milne/Associated Press

    New England Patriots (9-0)

    The Jaguars had one of the best seasons in franchise history. Their defense is as stout as any, loaded with talent at all three levels. They sit one win away from reaching the pinnacle of the sport for the first time.

    In the panel's opinion, that's as close as they are going to get.

    NFL analyst Brad Gagnon was inclined to pick the road team but just couldn't bring himself to do it. "I was very tempted to pick the Jaguars," Gagnon said. "I think they keep it very close, but New England's experience is ultimately the difference. The Patriots have won seven straight home playoff games, with five of those victories coming by at least 18 points."

    There was no such temptation for NFL analyst Brent Sobleski. "New England is counted among the league's deepest teams," he said. "Bill Belichick is the greatest head coach of all time. The Patriots overcame injuries to Julian Edelman and Marcus Cannon. Also, Tom Brady is playing at a previously unseen level from a 40-year-old quarterback."

    NFL national lead writer Matt Miller believes the quarterback position and game-planning will be the difference here. "At some point," Miller said, "Blake Bortles has to lose the Jaguars a game, right? The Jacksonville defense hasn't been as dominant in the playoffs, and while they do have the push to pressure and hit Tom Brady, the Patriots will scheme up success with James White and Rob Gronkowski to punch their ticket to another Super Bowl."

    NFL analyst Sean Tomlinson agreed that New England's ability to adapt will just be too much for the Jaguars to overcome. "The Jaguars defense is terrifying," he said. "They can create chaos with their ability to bring pressure without blitzing, which is one of the keys to beating Tom Brady (just ask the 2015 Broncos). But the Patriots always find a way to adjust, and they have the offensive weapons to neutralize Jacksonville's pass rush. That will mean leaning on running back Dion Lewis again, who has recorded 206 receiving yards over his last five games."

    A similar sentiment was echoed by NFL national lead writer Mike Tanier. "Teams that keep things simple and balanced have been able to neutralize the Jaguars defense this season," he said. "It's as simple as keeping your tight ends tight, using some play action and max protection to stymie their pass rush, and basically doing all the things the Steelers didn't think they had to do in the first half of Sunday's game. One of the many things that make the Patriots THE PATRIOTS is their ability to adapt strategically from game to game. They'll downshift into more of a four-wheel-drive offense, capitalize on Jaguars mistakes, and do what they always do in mid-January."

    Long story short, everyone on the panel (myself included) believes the Jaguars have to play a perfect game to pull off the upset.

    Not one of us expects them to do that.

    As NFL national lead writer Mike Freeman put it: "The Jaguars will give New England problems, but Tom Brady has seen everything. He's at home in the playoffs, and ... no one in history is better."

    Jaguars: Just Jalen Ramsey

    Patriots: Davenport, Dunne, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Pompei, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

NFC Championship: No. 2 Minnesota Vikings at No. 1 Philadelphia Eagles

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    When: Sunday, Jan. 21, 6:45 p.m. ET

    Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

    TV: Fox

    Line (per OddsShark): Minnesota -3

    One thing is for sure: Sunday's NFC Championship Game should be sponsored by Advil. Or maybe Aspercreme.

    Because there's going to be a whole lot of hitting in Philadelphia.

    The Eagles and Minnesota Vikings possess two of the most physical and aggressive defenses in the NFL. The Vikings lead the NFL in both total defense and scoring defense by allowing just 15.8 points per game. The Eagles are fourth in the NFL in both regards.

    The pair ranks No. 1 and No. 2 in the league against the run. It's going to be difficult for either team to get a ground game going, although both rank in the top seven in the NFL in rushing. That's going to leave the biggest game in years for both teams in the hands of the quarterbacks.

    It's an unlikely pair of potential heroes.

    For the Eagles, Nick Foles took over for an injured Carson Wentz back in Week 14. After Foles did just enough in last week's win over the Atlanta Falcons, head coach Doug Pederson told Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia that he has every confidence the QB can propel the Eagles into the Super Bowl.

    "You feel like with veteran quarterbacks, they've been in games and they can kind of settle down ... early and calm down and get into that rhythm," Pederson said. "[I] feel that way with Nick, obviously, and the confidence I have in him."

    Across the field, there's something of a mirror image in Minnesota's Case Keenum.

    Yes, Keenum went 11-3 as the starter for the Vikings in 2017 and just authored one of the most amazing final plays in NFL playoff history. But the Vikings needed that miracle because the team blew a 17-0 lead—in part because Keenum threw an awful second-half interception.

    For most of this season, there's been hand-wringing that Keenum would implode. That he would revert into being Case Keenum—a journeyman backup with 24 touchdowns and 20 interceptions over his first five NFL seasons.

    After Minnesota's miracle against the Saints, Keenum told Peter King of the MMQB that he doesn't much care who believes in him—to a point.

    "I mean, I've done so much work at trying to block those people out," said Keenum. "I kind of have a little space in my mind that I just throw all that stuff in and maybe one day when I am not thinking about waking up to go work out or one last wind sprint, I'll think about it. But it's not my biggest motivation now."

    In Keenum and Foles, we have a pair of backups who are now the deciding factors in the biggest game of their lives. Both have the confidence of their coaching staffs and teammates, and both could be defined for the rest of their careers by what happens Sunday evening.

Vikings' Keys to Victory

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    Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

    Sunday's NFC Championship Game is something of a battle of mirror images. The Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles are similar teams looking to ride similar game plans to victory.

    Still, I'll try to avoid just parroting the same keys to victory for each team. Because parrots are annoying.


    Keenum on the Case

    The Minnesota Vikings are going to try to run the ball in Philadelphia. That's a given. No team in the NFC ran the ball more in 2017 than the Vikings, who had 501 carries as a team.

    They are also likely to fail to run successfully Sunday. No team in the NFL allowed fewer rushing yards per game this season than Philly's 79.2.

    That's going to put a ton of pressure on Case Keenum and the passing game to move the ball against a middle-of-the-pack Eagles secondary.

    Assuming Keenum's given time, he should be able to find open receivers, especially with players like Adam Thielen and Stefon "Never has to buy another meal in Minneapolis again" Diggs at his disposal.

    However, if he's pressured, Keenum can't throw bad interceptions like the one he tossed last week against the Saints. A similar gaffe in the NFC Championship could mean the difference between a win and a loss.


    Get Aggressive Defensively

    It won't be hard for the Vikings to game-plan defensively for the Eagles. All Mike Zimmer has to do is try to stop his own offense, because the Eagles and Vikings both enter this game with a similar offensive philosophy.

    Run to set up the pass. Don't make mistakes. Keep the game close.

    However, Zimmer has one thing at his disposal that Jim Schwartz does not: The Vikings were second in the NFL in pass defense this year.

    In Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Terence Newman, the Vikings have a deep and talented cadre of cornerbacks capable of holding up in man coverage. That will allow Zimmer to be more aggressive both at the line of scrimmage and in pressuring the quarterback.

    Take the fight to the Eagles and make Nick Foles beat you through the air.


    Start Fast

    The atmosphere at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday is going to be off the chain. The Eagles have one of the most passionate fanbases in the NFL.

    It's also a fanbase that has grown accustomed to waiting for the other shoe to drop. There's a constant nagging in the back of their minds that things are about to come off the rails.

    Neither of these teams is loaded with players who have been down this road before. Excitement about being this close to a Super Bowl could quickly turn to anxiety if things start off on the wrong foot.

    The Vikings shouldn't necessarily abandon what's gotten them this far—that's a trap far too many playoff teams fall into. They get cute and fix things that aren't broken.

    But if Zimmer and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur have a play up their sleeves they've been waiting for just the right team to unleash, this is it.

    If either of these teams goes up by double digits, it could be difficult for the other to mount a comeback.

Eagles' Keys to Victory

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    The Philadelphia Eagles are the NFC's No. 1 seed, but despite a 13-3 record, they enter the NFC Championship Game as a home underdog for the second straight week.

    The Eagles are embracing the role, going so far as to encourage fans to wear dog masks to the game.

    Here's what the Eagles need to do to pull out a second straight surprise win.


    Don't Give Up on the Run

    Just like the Vikings, it's a safe bet that the Eagles will make a concerted effort to run the ball. The team ranked sixth in rushing attempts, third in rushing yards and second in yards per carry this season.

    And just like the Vikings, the Eagles will probably find the sledding tough on the ground. The only team in the NFL that was harder to run on in 2017 than the Vikings was the Eagles. Minnesota allowed just 83.6 rushing yards per game.

    However, the Eagles need to be stubborn about sticking with the run game, even if it sputters early.

    It's not just a matter of picking up yardage or keeping Nick Foles in manageable third-down situations. The Eagles also need to try to control tempo, like they did last week.

    The Eagles only had 96 rushing yards on 32 carries in that game, but by sticking with the run, Philly also held the ball for over 32 minutes.

    The lower the score in this game, the better the Eagles' chances.


    Foles Can't Fold

    The Philadelphia offense wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders against the Atlanta Falcons. It found the end zone just once. But Nick Foles and the Eagles did just enough—largely because while they lost a pair of fumbles, Foles avoided making ill-advised throws.

    One touchdown probably isn't going to be enough against a Vikings team that ranked inside the top 10 in scoring in 2017.

    Yes, the Eagles ranked higher still. But that was before Carson Wentz got hurt. Over their last three games, the Eagles have scored 34 points total.

    And Sunday, they face the league's stingiest scoring defense.

    There's just no getting around it. Foles is going to need to make some plays down the field against the NFL's No. 2 pass defense—all while avoiding turnovers against a secondary that picked off 14 passes in 2017.


    Step Up on the Back End

    The Vikings and Eagles both have rock-solid defenses. They were the two most difficult teams to run against this season, and both Philadelphia and Minnesota rank inside the top five in both scoring defense and total defense.

    However, there is one big difference between the two squads: Where the Vikings were also a top-five pass defense, the Eagles were only so-so—17th in the NFL, at 227.3 yards per game.

    That difference on the back end could be a deciding factor in this game—unless cornerbacks Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby and Patrick Robinson up their games.

    To be fair, the Eagles secondary has played better since Darby returned to the lineup. They limited Matt Ryan to just 210 passing yards and a score a week ago, and while Julio Jones caught nine passes for 101 yards, he was held out of the end zone.

    This week might bring an even stiffer test. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen combined for over 2,100 receiving yards in 2017. Tight end Kyle Rudolph caught eight touchdown passes this season. And complementary targets like Laquon Treadwell, Jarius Wright and Michael Floyd are more than capable of making big plays over the top.

The Pick

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Minnesota Vikings (7-2)

    The NFC Championship Game was a harder call for our pundits. It features two equally matched teams, formidable defenses and questions at quarterback.

    And even if you believe the Vikings have a slight edge on paper, it can be argued that's canceled out by the game's being played outside in front of a boisterous pro-Eagles crowd.

    Mike Tanier thinks the game's locale could have a big impact on who represents the NFC in Super Bowl LII.

    "Right now, mild weather is expected in Philly for the NFC Championship Game," he said. "That was the forecast early last week, too, then a cold front blew an icy gale through Lincoln Financial Field and turned Eagles-Falcons into a frosty defensive duel. Both the Vikings and Eagles are built for low-scoring showdowns, but the Eagles running game and aggressiveness on fourth downs will give them an edge in a game where every point is precious. And no matter how cold it may be outdoors in Minnesota, the Vikings are just another dome team."

    However, Tanier and NFL Features Lead Writer Tyler Dunne were the only experts in our group who went with the home team.

    NFL analyst Brent Sobleski thinks the Vikings are on a collision course with destiny.

    "A perfect concoction of talent, top-notch coaching, injury survival and catching the lightning in a bottle is needed to capture a championship," Sobleski said. "Both the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings best fit these descriptions. Minnesota appears to be this year's team of destiny thanks to a suffocating defense, Case Keenum's star turn and Marcus Williams' missed tackle."

    Fellow analyst Sean Tomlinson expects the Vikings defense to come up big. "Nick Foles did enough after a rocky start against the Falcons. But a repeat performance is tough to imagine against a swarming Vikings defense that picked off Drew Brees twice after he threw only eight interceptions throughout the regular season," he said. "The Vikings ... are built to win on the road in January, and maybe at home in February too."

    National lead writer Matt Miller looks for that defense and Case Keenum to carry the day. "I've doubted Case Keenum all season long and it's gotten me nowhere," he said. "In a battle of two afterthought quarterbacks, it's time to take Keenum seriously. The Vikings defense should have success pressuring Nick Foles and shutting down the size, speed and versatility of the Eagles playmakers. If these teams have taught us anything, it's that we should expect the unexpected, but the Vikings are just too good to stop."

    Analyst Brad Gagnon also beat the drum for Keenum—sort of. "This is a toss-up because it's in Philly and Case Keenum has limited experience in the elements," Gagnon said. "He struggled in Green Bay in December, but that game was a lot colder than this one is expected to be. Having the better defense and quarterback will be enough for Minnesota to pull it off in a tough environment."

    I'm inclined to agree with that assessment. Don't get me wrong, it's not at all difficult to see the Eagles winning this game, especially if they can pressure Keenum and the Vikings into turnovers. But on paper, I trust Minnesota's secondary more than Philly's, and Keenum more than Foles.

    That will be enough for the Vikings to escape with about a 20-16 win. I see the Vikings making NFL history by becoming the first home Super Bowl team in history.

    And their reward for doing so is taking on the big bad Patriots.

    Vikings: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Pompei, Sobleski, Tomlinson

    Eagles: Dunne, Tanier


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