The Vikings will host the first playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium at 3:40 p.m. (CT) Sunday when New Orleans visits Minnesota for an NFC Divisional playoff game.
Minnesota is coming off of a bye week after earning the second seed in the NFC with a (13-3) record in the regular season.
The Saints won 31-26 against the Panthers during Wild Card weekend at the Mercedes Benz Superdome and look to win their first road game since Nov. 12 at Buffalo.
New Orleans finished 0-3 in their last three road games this season and is 1-5 on the road in the playoffs in franchise history.
Let’s see who the experts pick to win the matchup between the Saints and the Vikings:
This is the game of the weekend. The *Saints are coming off an impressive win over the Panthers, pulling off the challenging feat of beating a division opponent three times in one season. The Vikings *posted their best regular season since the 15-1 1998 group. Like that team, this Minnesota group is *lit. *(Sorry, trying to cater to all my readers who are having to go back to *Physics 16: Mechanics and Special Relativity *after a long winter break with co-eds and Franzia.) Also like that Vikes squad from '98: a newbie at quarterback. Randall Cunningham turned in his first full season as the *Vikings' starter in 1998 and almost secured both the NFC Championship and league MVP (Terrell Davis won that year). Case Keenum *might not do either, but don't laugh at the second notion. His play this year vaulted him to an honorable mention, at least.The real matchup to watch will not be Keenum taking on the New Orleans defense, or even *Adam Thielen *vs. *Marshon Lattimore **(not sure how often Lattimore will see Thielen across him Sunday). *
Rather, it's Brees against Mike Zimmer's defensive unit. The *Saints' franchise quarterback set an NFL record for completion percentage this season at a whopping 72.0. Minnesota set the pace for all scoring defenses, giving up a scant 15.8 points per game. That means Keenum is used to going out there with the thought bubble ‘We score 20 on O, we win.’ *Can Brees generate five quality drives, enough to produce two touchdowns, and three field goals? Not only will that be challenging against this *Vikings *pass rush (especially with the *Saints *missing parts on the offensive line), but Minnesota also boasts quality on the back two levels of the defense. Brees should dispatch *Alvin Kamara *outside and over the middle of the field. Problem is, OLB *Anthony Barr *and S *Harrison Smith *would be partially responsible for the slippery rookie — and they are each All-Pro-level players. *Xavier Rhodes *should shadow *Michael Thomas. Mark Ingram *will be hard-charging into *the league's second-ranked run defense. *
- Fun fact: The @RealJackAndrade *found that, since Week 10, Keenum and Brees have been two of the top three quarterbacks in the league by passer rating, with Keenum posting a 107.2 mark and Brees a 104.1. Only Matt Stafford (105.0) can compare since that time. Nice work, Jack! (I am trying to get him to create a Bumble account, ladies.)
Cut to the chase. The Saints of Brees, Ingram, Kamara and Michael Thomas lead the fourth-highest scoring offense in the NFL (and second in yards). They face off against the Vikings’ defense, giving up the fewest points and yards in the league and starting two first-team All-Pros in the secondary (Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith), and two other Pro Bowlers on the unit (Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr). The most fun will be when the Saints have the ball.
The most worrisome time for the Saints is when they don’t have it. Keenum had plenty of weapons, even without Cook, and none more dangerous than receiver Adam Thielen, who went from honoring Randy Moss with his shoes to posting stats like the Hall of Fame finalist. The Saints are going to have to put serious heat on Keenum, and Marshon Lattimore will have his hands full covering him, assuming that’s how the Saints play it. The receiving corps in Minnesota is a dramatic upgrade from what the Saints faced against the Panthers, plus tight end Kyle Rudolph.
All that being said … Brees is starting his 13th career postseason game, his sixth in the divisional round. Keenum is starting his first, period.
The Vikings have the best chance of playing a home Super Bowl that any team has ever had. I think they’ll get one step closer on Sunday when they beat the Saints and punch their ticket to the NFC Championship Game. Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense are firing on all cylinders, but the Vikings’ defense matches up well with New Orleans, and I’m expecting a big game from Case Keenum as Minnesota wins.
Vikings 24, Saints 21 — Michael David Smith, Pro Football Talk
Both teams are far different than they were in Week One, and both are better than they were on the first Monday night of the season. The Vikings are arguably the most balanced team in the NFL, and it will be louder than anything the Saints have experienced on the road in the postseason, probably even louder than the Beastquake game of early 2011. Minnesota advances, setting up the team’s latest chance to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1976.
*Vikings 31, Saints 20 — Mike Florio, *Pro Football Talk
Minnesota's run defense shut down New Orleans' rushing offense in Week 1. But that was before Kamara became a big part of the Saints' backfield. The Vikings will feel confident about their defense playing well overall at home, but they will need to win this game with offense.
Kamara, Ingram and Thomas are three difficult entities to contain all at once, especially with Brees playing so well. As the Saints have been a strong finishing team, the Vikings need to be sharp in the red zone.
The Vikings need to be aggressive with Keenum early, looking for big plays to wideouts Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and then turning to Latavius Murray and Kyle Rudolph to close out their own drives.
It will be close, with Brees and Keenum in a duel, but a Kai Forbath field goal will be the difference late.
The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints battled in Week 1, but that doesn't matter. It might as well have been back in 2014, that was so long ago. Both teams have changed dramatically since then, so there isn't much to take from the first meeting.
One thing to keep an eye on is the Saints offensive line. Andrus Peat is done for the playoffs. He's one of the best guards in the NFL, and many of New Orleans' big runs this season have come with him leading the way.
Still, the Saints offense against the Vikings defense is going to be a clash of titans. These are two of the most exciting units in football, and there's immense talent on each side.
The Vikings defense will play aggressive man-to-man coverage at times, which leads me to believe *Drew Brees *will find room to make some big plays downfield. The Vikings will also put a lot of guys at the line of scrimmage at times, which will open up opportunities for big Saints runs. Regardless, this is going to be one of the biggest tests the New Orleans offense has faced all year because there isn't a real weakness on Minnesota's defense.
The Panthers did some things to slow down Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram in the Wild Card game. I expect the Vikings to pick up on those things this week.
The Saints defense is also aggressive. It can make some big plays, but it will allow them, too. The Carolina Panthers definitely didn't have a ton of trouble moving the ball last week. However, I like that New Orleans plays this style of defense. It isn't going to die a slow death. It's going to end a drive quickly, or it's going to allow a quick score. Either way, the offense is going to get back on the field and stay in rhythm.
The Minnesota offense is more balanced than Carolina's, though — the Vikings can throw deep and run the ball inside and out — and so is the defense. That's going to be the big difference between last week and Sunday. I'd expect another high-scoring game, but the Saints will come out on the wrong end this time around.
*This is a rematch of Week 1 game between the teams, which the Vikings won 29-19. But that was a different Vikings team. Case Keenum has done a nice job as the starter, but this will be his first playoff start. That matters. The Vikings have the NFL’s best defense, but the Saints were the second-ranked offense and fourth-highest scoring team in the league. Drew Brees got going in the victory over Carolina. Adrian Peterson tied Alvin Kamara as the leading rusher for the Saints in the first meeting. He’s long gone, and that running game is much better. This will be a much tougher challenge for the Vikings defense, which is why I think the Saints will go into Minnesota and pull off the upset. *
FiveThirtyEight’s 2015 NFL forecast uses an Elo-based model to calculate each team’s chances of winning each week.
Pre-game win probabilities: Vikings 63 percent *— *FiveThirtyEight.com
Two of the three insiders picked the Vikings to win a playoff game for the first time since Brett Favre and Sidney Rice led them to a 34-3 victory over Dallas following the 2009 season.
"Minnesota has a big advantage with the crowd noise in the indoor stadium, which helps the get-off for a D-line that can really get off," one of the insiders picking Minnesota said. "[Everson] Griffen has 13 sacks. *Linval Joseph is a ridiculous Pro Bowl snub and a game-plan consideration at nose. [Drew] Brees likes to get under center and fool around at the line of scrimmage, but the crowd can affect some of that. He also likes to slide and step up instead of escaping the pocket. Well, Minnesota will have a good four-man rush plan for him, and that is where the get-off advantage is."*
The Vikings' defense ranked second, and the Saints' defense ranked 20th in ESPN's efficiency rankings for the second half of the season. Both offenses were in the top five. The Saints were 15th and the Vikings 25th in special teams.
"Minnesota is great at not giving up big plays, but Minnesota is in the same defense over and over and over again, which is not good when you have Sean Payton on the other side," another insider said. "Minnesota, as good as they have done offensively, if they kick a couple field goals and the Saints get one or two long scores, then it is going to be hard on Minnesota. Brees has such a huge playoff experience advantage on Keenum, and if Minnesota falls behind, that is just not their forte."
Another insider noted that the Vikings trailed only New England in avoiding turnovers in scoring territory, defined as the 35-yard line and closer. The Patriots have one turnover in that area. The Vikings have two. New Orleans has eight, which ranks 26th. That means fewer wasted scoring opportunities by Minnesota.
The third insider said he'll be watching to see how Payton handles game management. He noted that a timeout New Orleans called in the second quarter of the Week 1 game between the teams enabled a Vikings touchdown drive. Last week, Payton came under criticism for risking field position by passing on fourth-and-2 while protecting a late lead.
"Coaching decisions will be magnified," this insider said.
The hardest game to pick this weekend is probably the Saints against the *Vikings. Minnesota will be coming into this one fresh after a bye last week. The Saints took care of an NFC South rival, the Panthers, in a thriller that came down to the wire and was decided by some game-breaking mistakes by the Panthers. *
The Saints and Vikings have been two of the best teams in the NFL this season. New Orleans boasts a powerful offense, and Minnesota, a powerful defense. The computer’s going with the home team, but a slight majority of our experts expect the Saints to get the win — and a trip to the NFC Championship.
4 of 6 experts pick the Vikings, MMQB