The Vikings stunned the Saints in overtime for a 26-20 victory against the backdrop of naysaying prognosticators from coast-to-coast on Sunday.
Despite a 2-3 showing in December that included falling at home in Week 16 to Green Bay and resting most starters in Week 17 against Chicago, Minnesota won its first road playoff game since January 2005 thanks to a complete team victory that included heavy pressure and big plays by the defense.
The Vikings will play the No. 1 overall seed 49ers at 3:35 p.m. (CT) Saturday.
View postgame celebration images that followed the Vikings win over the Saints.
Pre-game questions: Would Adam Thielen return to his pre-injury self? What difference could he and Dalvin Cook make for the offense?
The Vikings offense posted 80 points in a two-game span from Weeks 6-7 in a home win against Philadelphia and a road victory at Detroit, but the latter came with a cost.
Thielen hurt his hamstring while making a 25-yard touchdown catch against the Lions.
After totaling 27 catches for 391 yards and five touchdowns on 40 targets in the first seven games of the season, Thielen had only nabbed three catches for 27 yards and a score on eight targets in parts or all of three games.
View game action images as the Vikings take on the Saints in the Wild Card matchup.
Thielen was targeted nine times on Sunday, leading to a game-high 129 receiving yards on seven receptions.
The first ended unceremoniously with a fumble after a gain of 3. The turnover gave New Orleans the ball at the Minnesota 37-yard line, but the Vikings defense limited the Saints to a short field goal.
Thielen later converted a third-and-5 with an 8-yard reception, a second-and-8 with a 19-yard grab and a third-and-4 with a catch for 13 during a pair of scoring drives by Minnesota before halftime.
Cousins stood tough in the pocket and delivered a 34-yarder to Thielen on a third-and-9 during Minnesota's touchdown drive in the third quarter. The quarterback and receiver later looked like they hadn't missed a beat on their 43-yard connection to set up the game-winning score in overtime.
Cook, who rushed for 1,135 yards and 13 scores while adding 519 yards on 53 catches in the regular season, showed impressive burst and versatility, particularly in the first half when he rushed 16 times for 84 yards and executed a nice cutback on a 5-yard touchdown run that gave Minnesota a 13-10 halftime lead.
The Saints were forced to focus on Cook, and they were able to limit his gains on the ground in the second half, but Minnesota also got its play-action passes going at key times.
"Adam's a great competitor, and typically when he makes a bad play, he never compounds it. Then, he's going to make big plays. The catch he made there at the end was a terrific catch, a great throw. He made a couple other great catches today."
— Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer
"It was good. I thought Dalvin ran the ball very hard today; the offensive line did a nice job of protecting. They've got some really great players on the defensive line. The way he runs the football with the acceleration to get through the seams and the cracks, and then the physicality that he runs with, he made some great runs today."
"We won the game today because we played great defense, got [two] turnovers, good special teams, great play-calling, a good plan. We protected, ran the football … probably had 35-40 rushing attempts. There's a whole lot of reasons we won the game. Does the quarterback play a role in that? Yes, but it was a team win."
— Vikings QB Kirk Cousins
"Protection held up, Adam pretty much won, and the ball goes up and he makes a great play. It's a [play] I've run since my rookie year. Sometimes you hit it, sometimes you don't … it was great to connect on that one."
— Cousins on the 43-yard pass to Thielen
"Small sample size without [Cook], thankfully. Certainly a blessing to start this game with the 11, 12, 13 guys that we started the season with. I don't think many teams can say that, so we feel fortunate from that standpoint. He's a special player, he's been that way all year for us. He's a great teammate and a great person."
— Cousins on the offense being full-strength
"Having a guy like him not only emotionally, but physically on the field, doing what he does, and just as a leader and the type of person that he is, he's one of the first guys to come up to me and say, 'I've got your back. Let's go.' That's the guys that you want in your locker room and are thankful for."
— Vikings WR Adam Thielen on Cook
"[Play action is] our identity, and it starts with Dalvin running the football. Alexander [Mattison] came in and ran the ball huge, as well. It's a complete team win. Everybody on offense contributed. The defense played huge. Special teams forcing a missed field goal before the half, just so many little things that go unnoticed that allowed us to win that ball game."
— Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph
"I felt [the benefit of rest] in practice and was flying around, just getting myself back in condition to play football. I was flying around, and I was pushing myself like I was in a football game. I think it paid off."
— Vikings RB Dalvin Cook