Unlikely pals lead Vikings, Eagles into playoff showdown

AFP
Quarterback Case Keenum of the Minnesota Vikings walks off the field after the Vikings defeated the New Orleans Saints 29-24 to win the NFC divisional round playoff game, at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on January 14, 2018 (AFP Photo/JAMIE SQUIRE)

Quarterback Case Keenum of the Minnesota Vikings walks off the field after the Vikings defeated the New Orleans Saints 29-24 to win the NFC divisional round playoff game, at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on January 14, 2018

Quarterback Case Keenum of the Minnesota Vikings walks off the field after the Vikings defeated the New Orleans Saints 29-24 to win the NFC divisional round playoff game, at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on January 14, 2018 (AFP Photo/JAMIE SQUIRE)

New York (AFP) - Case Keenum and Nick Foles, NFL teammates in 2015 and reserves when this season began, will be the unlikely leaders on Sunday when the Minnesota Vikings visit the Philadelphia Eagles with a Super Bowl berth at stake.

Keenum took over as Vikings quarterback in the second week of the campaign after starter Sam Bradford suffered a knee injury and guided Minnesota to a division crown while Foles has been the Eagles signal caller for barely a month since Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending knee injury.

But one of these substitutes will extend his fairy-tale journey in the National Conference final, the winning team to face either the defending champion New England Patriots or Jacksonville Jaguars in Super Bowl 52 on February 4 in Minneapolis.

"A Foles versus Keenum NFC Championship so good job to all you guys who predicted that," Keenum joked. "Are we proud of what we accomplished? Heck yeah. Is there more ahead of us? Heck yeah."

One team will end a long wait for a Super Bowl return, with Minnesota having the chance to become the first NFL team to play in a Super Bowl on its home field after an astonishing last-play 61-yard touchdown pass by Keenum to Stefon Diggs that eliminated New Orleans last weekend.

"It would be a shame to let something like that go to waste," Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said.

The Vikings have lost five conference finals in a row, the most recent of them eight seasons ago, since last playing in the Super Bowl in 1976. Minnesota has never captured a Super Bowl title, losing to Kansas City, Miami, Pittsburgh and Oakland from 1969-1976.

The Eagles, who last won an NFL crown in 1960 before the Super Bowl era began, have reached the championship spectacle twice, falling to Oakland in 1980 and New England in 2004.

Keenum and Foles have been friends since their days for the then-St. Louis Rams in 2015. Foles and Keenum traded starting duties for the Rams that season but both were soon replaced and gone only to now find themselves on a collision course.

"It's pretty wild," Foles said. "Case's success doesn't surprise me because we prepared together and we were around each other every day. The big message there is, no matter what happens, you have to keep believing in yourself, keep working hard and just never give up."

Keenum and Foles have spoken frequently in recent months.

"We've talked during the season," Keenum said. "We watch the same film and similar defenses we have played. Nick is a great guy. I know he has got a lot of confidence and I'm looking forward to playing against him."

- Tongan-heritage blocker -

The Vikings boast the NFL's top defensive unit, allowing only 15.8 points and 275.9 yards a game.

"Minnesota is a little bit more diverse in their coverages. They like to switch it up. They do a good job of rockin' and rollin' the safeties," Foles said. "They play a lot tighter down. They're not going to give us much underneath so we're absolutely going to have to make some larger completions."

Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen had a career-high 13 quarterback sacks and was described by Eagles coach Doug Pederson as a "game-wrecker." Stopping him will be the job of Eagles left offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a second-year blocker whose parents were from Tonga.

"We're going to slide help over there," Pederson said. "Big V had challenges all season. We've faced some tremendous defensive ends this year. But this definitely will be his greatest challenge."

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