Today marks the first playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium, with the New Orleans Saints in town to take on the Vikings in the divisional round. Here are a few final thoughts from the week that was.
Winner goes to Philadelphia
The Vikings and Saints have known all week a trip to the NFC title game was on the line in their matchup, but now they know that trip will be to Philadelphia after the Eagles edged out the Atlanta Falcons in Saturday's divisional round game. A Falcons win would've meant today's winner would host the NFC Championship Game, but the Eagles spoiled those plans.
Vikings have a dynamic running back duo, too
There's been a lot of talk about the Saints dynamic and productive running back duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The chatter is justified given that this tandem combined for 25 touchdowns and over 3,000 scrimmage yards in the regular season. But the Vikings have a good one-two punch at running back, as well. Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray teamed up to rank fourth for combined scrimmage yards by a running back tandem (2,461), trailing only the Jacksonville, New England and Saints duos. With McKinnon and Murray shouldering the load, the Vikings generated 752 more yards and six more touchdowns on the ground than they did a season ago.
Saints as balanced as ever with Brees under center
The Saints offense has always been good with Drew Brees under center. New Orleans has ranked in the top 10 in points per game in 10 of Brees' 12 seasons there, including a No. 1 ranking twice and seven appearances in the top five. But the Saints have never been more balanced than they've been this season. From 2012-16, the Saints ranked second, second, second, fourth and second in passing attempts. In 2017, the Saints ranked 19th. Brees had 23 touchdown passes this regular season, which is solid but it also his lowest total since he's been in New Orleans. And yet, the Saints ranked fourth in scoring and second in total offense, and Brees generated his best season-long passer rating (103.9) since 2013. So what's the point? It's important for the Vikings to be solid against the Saints rushing attack on Sunday. Doing so will force New Orleans to be more pass heavy than they've been this season, which is actually a good thing given how well the Vikings have played the pass in 2017.
Vikings offensive line looks to continue the narrative
A big reason for the Vikings success in 2017 has been the play of the offensive line. A season ago, this group was ravaged by injuries and its performance was affected because of those injuries. This season, injuries have been a factor but the group's depth was such that the group was able to overcome injuries and be the glue to what was a vastly improved offense overall from 2016. With the season-ending injury to Nick Easton in Week 16 and the return of center Pat Elflein after he missed Week 17, it will be interesting to see what kind of lineup the Vikings use up front. The Vikings could use Jeremiah Sirles at left guard in place of Easton and keep Mike Remmers at right tackle, or they could slide Remmers inside to left guard and use Rashod Hill, who played well in Remmers' stead earlier this season, at right tackle. No matter how it shakes out in terms of the starting lineup, it won't be surprising if all of the aforementioned names are important to today's game, especially if injuries strike during the game or if the Vikings want to use an extra offensive linemen in certain situations, which they did two weeks ago in the regular season finale against the Bears.
Stat of the week
Runs of 10 yards allowed by Vikings defense: 20
This is yet another historically significant stat for the Vikings defense, as it's the fewest allowed in the NFL this season and it's tied with the 1995 San Francisco 49ers for the fewest allowed in a season since 1991. It's also significant because the Vikings defense this week is going against a Saints offense that generated 54 rushes of 10 yards, sixth-most in the League this season. Something has to give on Sunday.
Quote of the week
Reporter: The game plan is in and you're done for the week. What do you do now to decompress and find moments of zen before a big game like this?
Zimmer: *[Laughs] I don't know that I have moments of zen. I have moments of nervousness, sitting in the locker room before the game. Really what you do is you just keep studying, that's what I do. I keep studying and keep trying to figure out what's the best thing, the best situation we can do. You go through a lot of what-ifs. If they do this, how are we going to combat that? And then get a bottle of red wine.*
About the only place Zimmer may have a moment of zen is at his ranch in northern Kentucky – bottle of red wine included. All joking aside, this is the type of honest answer to a question that so many, from media to fans to peers, appreciate and find unique about Zimmer.
Cameron Jordan – The son of legendary Vikings tight end Steve Jordan, Cameron Jordan is the Saints best defensive player. He can do it all. He finished the regular season with 13.0 sacks, 11 passes defensed and two forced fumbles; he also scored a touchdown on defense this season. He must be blocked on every play, and if he's not then he will ruin the game.
Ted Ginn, Jr. – Michael Thomas is the Saints best receiver and Xavier Rhodes will likely draw that assignment. The Ingram-Kamara running back duo will also command attention. But the Vikings can't forget about Ginn. Carolina did briefly early in their Wild Card round game last week, and Ginn burned them for an 80-yard touchdown.
Turnovers – New Orleans ranked tied for seventh in sacks and only two teams had more interceptions than the Saint in the regular season. Their defense can create a frenzy and, consequently, turnovers, which makes life easier for the offense. The Vikings most likely path to victory over New Orleans includes a dominant defensive performance, which will be made much tougher to generate if the offense is giving the Saints short field with turnovers. Ball security is of the utmost importance for the Vikings.
Excited about our heavyweight matchup on Sunday. Can you talk about some of Zimmer's top priorities when game planning to stop the Saints cruising offense? Skol! -- Jordan Trabant Denver, CO
Coach Zimmer doesn't lay out his priorities for me, but we all know he always wants his defense to defend the run first. That is of particular importance in this matchup given New Orleans has a great one-two punch with Ingram and Kamara. Generating enough of a pass rush to bother Brees with four-man pressure packages would also be key because then the Vikings can use seven defenders in coverage, which is a luxury against an accurate passer such as Brees. If the Vikings can do those two things – neutralize the rushing attack and pressure Brees with four rushers – then they'll have a shot to contain the Saints prolific and balanced offense.
People seem concerned about Case's lack of playoff experience. Hasn't every week this season actually been like a playoff atmosphere for Case - looking over his shoulder knowing if he makes a mistake Teddy or Sam would be happy to come in? The way he's handled this season I think Case will do just fine in the playoffs! -- Tom Hedgepath
I haven't seen anything this season that would suggest Keenum will collapse under pressure. I agree with Tom that Keenum has been under pressure to perform at every step of his pro career. Playing at home in his first playoff start is a nice advantage, too.
National Television: FOX
Play-by-play: Joe Buck
Analyst: Troy Aikman
Sideline: Erin Andrews and Chris Myers
National Radio: Westwood One Sports
Play-by-play: Kevin Harlan
Analyst: Trent Green
Sideline: Laura Okmin
Local Radio: KFAN-FM 100.3/KTLK-AM 1130
Play-by-play: Paul Allen
Analyst: Pete Bercich
Sideline: Greg Coleman, Ben Leber