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Final Thoughts: Vikings Utilizing Different Types of Playoff Experience Ahead of Wild Card Matchup with Giants

EAGAN, Minn. — Since the Vikings opened U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016, they've only experienced one home playoff game.

That was the NFC Divisional matchup between Minnesota and New Orleans in January 2018. It ended with Vikings quarterback Case Keenum and wide receiver Stefon Diggs connecting on the "Minneapolis Miracle," a game-winning, 61-yard touchdown to propel Minnesota to a 29-24 victory.

The Vikings (13-4) will host the New York Giants (9-7-1) at 3:30 p.m. (CT) Sunday, five years and one day after that historic moment occurred.

"I just remember it being loud. It was probably one of the loudest games I've ever been in," outside linebacker Danielle Hunter recalled this week about playing in the playoff game against the Saints. "It was so loud that you could just feel the vibration, the sound off your skin."

Six Vikings (Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, C.J. Ham and Hunter) were on that 2017 Minnesota team that also won 13 regular-season games in a single season. Only one other team in franchise history has accomplished that feat (1998 Vikings that went 15-1).

Minnesota Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said the team has a good balance of players with postseason experience and those getting their first taste of the playoffs.

"I've relied on our leadership. A lot of those guys, many of them with this team or with some other teams that they've been with," O'Connell said. "We've got some other coaches that can just explain — I think it's very important that they explain how important one week of preparation is — and do not worry about anything else beyond this Sunday and understand it's going to take everything we've got."

Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips — who spent his first four NFL seasons in Buffalo — made the playoffs three times. He was on Injured Reserve in 2019 when the Bills lost at Houston in the Wild Card Round (Jan. 4, 2020). Phillips played in all three Buffalo playoff games after the 2020 season and both a year ago. Losses in the AFC Championship Game and Divisional Round ended the Bills runs in Kansas City in each of those seasons.

Phillips said there can be a learning curve for rookies — or even veterans — who haven't experienced the playoffs before.

"For the young players, just understanding this doesn't come all the time. I've been with someone who played 10-plus seasons, 13 seasons and maybe never went to the playoffs or only got there once," Phillips said. "For the time being, I think that same thing, it's that urgent approach of, 'Hey, we're not trying to do anything outside of our framework and don't be anything extra than you have been.' You should have been doing that already the whole season, it's still important.

"But every single snap is life and death, so when you're out there maybe in the regular season against a nonconference opponent, the play's over there and you're like, 'Ah, somebody else will get it,' " Phillips continued. "In the playoffs, it's like, 'No, you have to have the mindset that 'I'm the only person that can stop this play.' Or offensively, 'I have to make this block or this won't get a touchdown.' So being able to have that for a full 60 minutes or however long it takes, I think you have to have some type of maturity."

Cornerback Patrick Peterson is in his 12th NFL season, but this is only his third playoff appearance (2014 and 2015 with Arizona). A couple of months ago, Peterson shared a simple, but important message with his teammates: relish the moment.

"I was like, 'Just think about it. Give us everything you have for these two months, restack it up again and give us everything you have again for another month and a half or however long the postseason may last,' " Peterson said. "You may be happy with the result, but you don't want to be in a position like this and have regrets after, so that's why I told the guys, 'Relish these moments. Enjoy it, and don't leave a stone unturned.'"

Wide receiver Justin Jefferson will be among the group of 31 Vikings on the 53-man roster who are making their playoff debuts this weekend.

Jefferson said playing on big stages at LSU helped prepare him for the bright lights of the NFL postseason.

"I live for these types of games. I love the big moments, I just know that this team is going to be ready to play," Jefferson said. "This is my first time in the playoffs, but I know what it takes to win. They're going to get everything out of me, I'm going to leave it all on the field every single play. Everybody has to want it, everybody wants to win, everybody has to go out there with the same attitude, and I know I'm going to bring all that I have out there on that field and do whatever it takes for us to get the win."

View photos of the Vikings during practice on Jan. 12, 2023 at TCO Performance Center.

Here's what Sam Thiel, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching for in Sunday's game:

A quick rematch | By Sam Thiel

The Vikings didn't have to wait long to see the Giants again.

The first meeting back in Week 16 — a mere three weeks ago — ended with Greg Joseph kicking a franchise-record, 61-yard field goal to earn a 27-24 victory.

Despite having just faced the Giants, Vikings players know the challenges of playing the same team twice in a season.

"I think you can maybe be a little bit into the fact that, 'Oh, we've seen these guys, we know what they're going to do.' I don't think that's the case. It's always so hard to beat a team twice; you've seen that in our season already, so we have to have our Ps and Qs all dialed up and again," Phillips said. "The benefit is we do know what we had some success with, some of the personnel stuff up front, who's going to be blocking you and vice versa. But when it comes to the scheme and stuff like that, everyone's going to be dialing up their best everything, things they've been holding onto all year. We know there's going to be some unscouted looks and we just have to try to eliminate those as much as we can."

All six Wild Card games are rematches of 2022 regular-season contests.

While the playoffs mean a finality to the team that loses, Peterson said he has been treating every game as a "must-win" for some time.

"You prepare to win, especially later on in the season," Peterson said. "I feel like once you cross November after Thanksgiving that's when, for the most part, every game is a must-win because you're starting to prime yourself for the playoffs. You want to build that mentality of going into games [thinking], 'This is a must-win situation.'

At the same time, though, Peterson noted the team can't make the game "bigger than what it is."

"It's another football game just in a bigger moment," Peterson said. "Having guys understand the biggest thing about this game is the margin of error is just very small and we have to start fast. We can't find ourselves in a hole and try to dig ourselves back out because it may not happen. I think we have a great mixture of older guys, veteran guys that have been in that moment that's able to continue to share stories and things that's going to be able to help guys throughout this week and this run as well."

Holding it down up front | By Lindsey Young

The Vikings offensive line has fluctuated in various ways over the past number of weeks, and this weekend is no different.

With Brian O'Neill on Injured Reserve due to an ankle injury, the Vikings could again look to Oli Udoh – or potentially Blake Brandel – to start at right tackle. Udoh started there last week and received praise from Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, but Brandel did return to practice this week while still on Injured Reserve. The Vikings would need to activate Brandel to the 53-man roster before he could play. Minnesota is getting back its starting center in Garrett Bradbury, who was sidelined the past five games with a back injury.

Bradbury said it "was huge" to return to this field this week and be a full participant in Friday's practice.

"You've got to see how you feel playing football, not just running and pushing sleds," he said. "So to do that was awesome. It was good to be back out there with the guys, and I'm just excited to move forward."

He added that he emphasized lots of core work while rehabbing, in order to strengthen his back.

"I was hoping that I'd have a six pack by now, but I don't," Bradbury quipped. "But it's a lot of work. It was a lot of tedious, small-muscle work."

Left tackle Christian Darrisaw emphasized the difference it makes having Bradbury back, though Austin Schlottmann and Chris Reed filled in admirably.

"It's a huge boost for the room, having him back, the type of caliber player he is. It's huge for us as a unit," Darrisaw said. "We know it was trending [toward him playing this week]. The practice was really like the game, just what he's going to do or not. He had a great day, looked like himself, and he's back."

The Vikings will need all of their O-lineman on their A-game Sunday as they face a Giants front anchored by Dexter Lawrence. The powerful, Pro Bowl lineman poses a problem up front, something Minnesota's offense is well aware of after facing him in Week 16 of the regular season. Lawrence recorded six tackles, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit and a pass defensed.

"I played against him every year in college, played him in the NFL once, and he's had his best season yet," Bradbury said of Lawrence. "They've got a good group and they do a lot of stuff with [Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale], a lot of pressure, as everyone knows. It's a tall task for us, but it's what you want."

Containing a catching RB & running QB | By Craig Peters

The Vikings know the challenges ahead with running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Daniel Jones.

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Giants.

Barkley backs up his dynamic and fierce running (295 rushes for 1,312 yards and 10 touchdowns) with great skills catching the football (57 receptions for 338 yards). Beyond throwing the football (career high passer rating of 92.5), Jones has been heavily involved as a runner this season.

Consider from 2022-21, Jones rushed 127 times for 721 yards and three scores. This season? He rushed 120 times for 708 yards and seven scores.

Three weeks ago, Barkley totaled 84 rushing yards on 14 carries, highlighted by a 27-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Jones added 34 yards on four rushes, combining for 118 of the Giants 126 rushing yards on the day.

Barkley was one of three New York players to record eight catches. He finished with 49 yards thanks to a long of 18.

"We know he has a bunch of tools, and we know they're going to get him the ball anyway they can, different types of looks, but it's up to us to see that," linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "We had that a couple of weeks ago, so it prepared us for the kind of skill set he has, but we've got to play it as we see it."

Jones finished 30-of-42 passing for 334 yards with one touchdown and an interception nabbed by Patrick Peterson. His passer rating of 92.8 was right on par with the 92.5 he totaled this season.

"Dual threat, he's very confident in the pocket, an awesome scrambler," nickel cornerback Chandon Sullivan said. "He's faster than what people give him credit for. We've definitely got to keep our eyes on him and Saquon."

The Vikings defense should be helped by Danielle Hunter, who has been on a late-season surge, and improved health for Za'Darius Smith, who said this week he's back to 100 percent after working his way through a knee contusion since Week 10 at Buffalo.

Hunter played brilliantly against the Giants in December, recording seven tackles, 2.0 sacks, four quarterback hits and a forced fumble. Smith recorded three quarterback hits on a day when Minnesota totaled 11.

Smith said part of what he and Hunter talked about when the tandem formed has come to fruition and they now want to achieve more goals.

"The first thing was getting the [NFC] North, you know what I'm saying? Winning the North and getting into the playoffs and basically having home-field advantage," Smith said. "As you can see, everything is happening the way we want it to.

He said the Vikings defense must keep Jones contained "because he's a guy that can run under pressure."

"Basically us guys up front keeping our lanes, the pass rush lanes, and in the run game with the running back," Smith said. "Great guy that can cut up and down the field, but we just can't let him get to the second level."

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