PHILADELPHIA -- Since his Saturday night pregame preparation allowed Jim Johnson to watch only about one series of the Atlanta Falcons' divisional-round victory over St. Louis, and his unit hasn't yet faced quarterback Michael Vick in the new offense installed this year, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator isn't quite certain yet of exactly what he is facing in next weekend's NFC title game.
"Oh, next week is going to be different, you know that," said Johnson, after the Eagles handily dispatched the Minnesota Vikings 27-14 to move one step closer to what the veteran players here feel is their birthright. "This is a different animal. With [Vikings quarterback] Daunte Culpepper, we knew they wanted to throw the ball. The Falcons want to run it. They don't want to get into a game where they have to throw the ball all over the place to win. But we'll come up with something."
If the Johnson blueprint even remotely approximates the effectiveness of Sunday's defensive hieroglyphics, the Eagles and this city might finally be able to move beyond the palpable sense of unfinished business that pervaded the locker room following the fairly one-sided win over the Vikings, a team rife with big-time offensive playmakers.
One of the NFL's premier defensive minds, even if many fans in other league precincts aren't nearly as aware as they should be of his brilliance, Johnson made some significant adjustments to the plan he had concocted for a regular-season victory over Minnesota here on Sept. 20.
He blitzed more, up from about 20 percent in the regular-season game, to what Johnson guessed was closer to 50 percent in Sunday's matchup. Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard suggested the blitz quota on Sunday was actually closer to 60-70 percent. Johnson used left end Jevon Kearse far less as a "spy" on Culpepper, aligning him at middle linebacker in what Philadelphia terms the "joker" spot only twice all afternoon, as opposed to 8-10 times in the earlier meeting. Disappointed that the Vikings had successfully attacked the Philadelphia Cover 2 zone four months ago, Johnson conjured up some more single coverages this time around, getting his linebackers much more involved.
The result: Coming off one of the most prolific all-around statistical campaigns in NFL history, Culpepper rang up a puny passer rating of just 63.3. Wide receiver Randy Moss, playing at perhaps 70 percent of peak physical readiness, caught only three passes for 51 yards, was kept out of the end zone, and was never a factor. While the Vikings authored three pass plays of 20-plus yards, they averaged only 13.2 yards per catch, and struggled to get the ball to the wideouts. And, despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry, Minnesota had just 97 yards on the ground.
At the center of Johnson's game plan was a linebacker corps that played minus weak-side starter Mark Simoneau. But the man most integral to much of what Johnson drew up in the week of preparation, prodigal middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, came up with one of the best games of his recent career.
The seven-year veteran, signed almost as an afterthought just before camp commenced this summer and following his unceremonious release by the Washington Redskins, had seven tackles, one-half sack, an interception and two passes defensed. A big-time game, indeed, for a player who didn't even move into the starting lineup until midway through the season, when Johnson tired of seeing his run defense gashed and trashed.
Trotter had two hits against the run that resulted in gains of zero yards. Against the pass, with Culpepper forced to dump the ball (by unofficial count, 11 of his 24 completions were on screen passes or swing passes), Trotter also made a pair of concussive stops.
"Now you see why I came back," said Trotter, who departed following the 2001 season and a pair of Pro Bowl trips in his first Philadelphia incarnation, then came back for the minimum salary this summer, and earned another Pro Bowl berth, while collecting 69 tackles in only nine starts. "This is what it's about. I'm here to help this team win a Super Bowl, and I thought I was, uh, very involved today."
He was hardly the lone standout, though, on a defense that sacked Culpepper three times, notched two interceptions and consistently forced the explosive Minnesota offense into 11 third-and-six or more situations. On six of those occasions, the Vikings faced conversion situations of third-and-10 or longer.
Kearse (five tackles, two half-sacks and three passes defensed) and right end Derrick Burgess, returning from an injury that had sidelined him the final month of the regular season, were superb. Linebacker Ike Reese, who played in nickel situations and also logged a few more snaps because of Simoneau's absence, had two tackles, an interception and another pass defensed. And, as usual, the secondary was stellar, with strong safety Michael Lewis collecting six tackles, and Sheppard registering four passes defensed for the afternoon.
"Maximize our physical style and minimize big plays," said Sheppard, who earned a Pro Bowl spot in his first season as a starter. "It's the one constant we have on this defense. I mean, we change the game plans all the time, and next week won't be different. But there are some things you have to do week in and week out to win in this league. And we think we know what those things are. Next week will be a challenge, for sure, a whole new set of things to deal with. But we'll have a good game plan, because we always do, and if we play it to our potential, we'll be OK. The goal now is to enjoy this [win] for tonight, get back at it on Wednesday, and have another strong week of practice."
In fact, while the skeptics questioned whether Philadelphia would quickly regain the level of momentum it enjoyed a month ago, before coach Andy Reid opted to rest many of his starters for the final two regular-season outings, Eagles veterans insisted the practices last week were particularly up-tempo and spirited.
And there is, acknowledged defensive tackle Corey Simon, a simple explanation for the fervor with which the Eagles attacked every session last week. It is, Simon agreed, rooted in the failures of the last three seasons and the sense that this year will be different as the Eagles try to cash in on what they feel is their destiny.
"We're hungry," Simon said. "[There is] no other way to put it. We all know what's out there for us. We know that Atlanta stands in the way. So I expect we're going to be just as pumped at practices this week. Last year, everyone was saying, like, 'Well, the third time is the charm.' Hey, man, charms are about luck. We're not going to leave anything to luck if we can help it, you know?"
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.