NFL Divisional Playoff Preview: Minnesota Vikings vs. New Orleans Saints
The NFL’s Divisional Round concludes this Sunday, as the Minnesota Vikings face off against the New Orleans Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium.
New Orleans is coming off of a nail-biting 31-26 victory over the division rival Carolina Panthers. While the Saints are in action for consecutive weeks, the Vikings see their first on-field action in two weeks. The goal is simple for Minnesota, become the first team to play in a Super Bowl on their own turf.
The Vikings had perhaps the most confusing quarterback situation this season, but head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur made it work. After a knee injury to Sam Bradford early in the season, Case Keenum entered the fray and played like a true MVP. In 15 games (14 started), Keenum threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns, and seven interceptions with an impressive 67.6 completion percentage.
Keenum has three tremendous targets to throw to this season in Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Kyle Rudolph. Diggs has hauled in 64 receptions for 849 yards and eight touchdowns. Thielen perhaps made the biggest impression, posting 91 catches for 1,276 yards and four touchdowns. Then of course is reliable Rudolph, who built off an impressive 2016 campaign with 57 receptions for 532 yards and eight touchdowns.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Vikings run game. With the season-ending injury to rookie starter Dalvin Cook, veterans Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon stepped up big time. On 216 carries this season, Murray rushed for 842 yards and eight touchdowns. McKinnon was the pass-catching specialist of the duo this year, where he rushed for 570 yards and three touchdowns on 150 carries, while recording 51 catches for 421 yards and two scores.
In last weeks game, Saints quarterback Drew Brees did what he normally does in big time situations, and that’s rack up big yardage. Brees threw for 376 yards for two touchdowns and one interception. With the duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara held in check, the passing game flourished. Michael Thomas recorded eight catches for 131 yards and Ted Ginn Jr caught four passes for 115 yards and one touchdown.
The Saints running game struggled last week against a stout Panthers rush defense. This week, they face an even tougher challenge, the Vikings’ second-best rush defense in the league (83.6 yards per game). New Orleans did perform well against an 18th overall Carolina pass defense. This Sunday, though, they have to deal with Minnesota’s second-best pass defense.
Xavier Rhodes further solidified his shutdown cornerback reputation this year, shutting down Thomas earlier this year, as well as Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and A.J. Green. Add Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, and Trae Waynes to the mix, and the Vikings defensive backfields has caused problems for the opposition this season.
Let’s not forget about the ever-dangerous Minnesota front-seven, lead by the likes of Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and Anthony Barr. These names helped the Vikings give up the least amount of points per game (15.8) and yards per game (275.9).
The Saints defense did have their hands full with Cam Newton last week, but they did just enough to earn the victory. Free safety Vonn Bell’s seven tackles were impressive. However, the most impressive play came on his game-ending sack on Newton to seal the win. Defensive end Cameron Jordan continued to wreak havoc, notching a sack of his own. While rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore recorded two tackles, he was close to hauling in a game-sealing interception. Regardless, the rookie out of Ohio State will sure be a factor, as he notched five interceptions on the year, and has progressed to be a dominant cornerback of the future.
This matchup has the potential to be “The Game of the Weekend.” Who will emerge victorious? A Vikings team looking to make history on their quest to “home-field” Super Bowl LI? Or will the surprising Saints continue their unprecedented season behind their electric offense?