The Vikings playoff journey begins at 3:30 p.m. (CT) Sunday against a familiar foe, with Minnesota (13-4) set to host the New York Giants (9-7-1) for a second consecutive home game.
In its previous meeting in Week 16, Minnesota defeated New York 27-24 on a franchise-record, 61-yard field goal by Greg Joseph.
Ahead of the rematch, Alec Lewis of The Athletic determined four critical factors for the Vikings in their postseason opener.
The first area Lewis noted is how New York defends Minnesota wide receiver Justin Jefferson and — more importantly — the response from the Vikings should the Giants take him out of the picture. He wrote:
Minnesota's swiftness in snuffing out the opponent's strategy is essential to its overall offensive success. Giants Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale's plan crystallized early in these teams' Week 16 matchup.
Essentially, the Giants committed to playing off coverage with cornerback Fabian Moreau. The one-time practice squad contributor identified Jefferson's alignment, then trotted over to that side. Rarely, though, did he jam him at the line of scrimmage. Instead, he provided ample space for Jefferson to release easily after the snap.
Jefferson went on to haul in 12 receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting, and tight end T.J. Hockenson added a career-high 13 catches for 109 yards and two scores.
The Vikings know things won't be the same in the second go-around, though, as the Giants are lined up to get safety Xavier McKinney and cornerback Adoree' Jackson back this week.
"They're getting a little healthier on the defensive side of the ball and in the secondary," Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said, "so I'm sure we'll see a variety of different things."
Lewis added if the Giants can limit Jefferson offensively, Minnesota will have to rely on K.J. Osborn, Adam Thielen and Hockenson to have productive afternoons.
Like the success of Jefferson, the offensive personnel the Vikings use will be key, Lewis said.
The first time the Vikings faced the Giants, they showed four different personnel groupings. They majored in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers). But they also switched things up in spurts, utilizing fullback C.J. Ham and multiple tight ends — sometimes all of them together.
New York matched the Vikings oft-used 11 personnel grouping with numerous sets of players, keeping the Vikings off guard. They used five defensive backs on some plays, six on others and even seven on some. New York, however, was not as deceptive in its responses when the Vikings used some of their niche packages.
"I think it's important that we look at our scheme in all three phases," O'Connell said Monday, "(to assess) what we've done and trying to identify where we're vulnerable. Then (it's also about identifying) the things we've done well and, asking, can we take things to another level and can we do some new things and use different personnel?"
Lewis added the return of tight end Irv Smith Jr. — who had three catches for 14 yards on Sunday at Chicago in his first game since Oct. 30 — and the recent strong outing by running back Alexander Mattison (10 carries, 54 yards, two touchdowns against the Bears) will also help Minnesota mix up its personnel looks.
Speaking of personnel groupings, the Vikings offensive line against the Giants blitz packages will be an important piece to the puzzle for Minnesota Sunday. Lewis wrote:
There is a stark difference in the way [quarterback Kirk] Cousins plays when he has more time to throw. He takes more risks. He's more dangerous.
For example, his average depth of target when he has 2.5 seconds or less to throw the football is 4.6 yards. When he has more than 2.5 seconds to throw, that increases to 10.6 yards.
In Week 16, Cousins averaged 2.53 seconds to throw against the Giants, who lead the NFL in blitz rate (44.8 percent). New York blitzed on 51 percent of Cousins' dropbacks and pressured Cousins 18 times. The quarterback managed to have some success, but his aggressiveness was severely limited.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 14, 2023.
On Sunday against Chicago, Minnesota played its fourth different offensive line combination in the past seven games. Center Garrett Bradbury is continuing to progress from a back injury, but if he can't go Sunday, reserve interior lineman Chris Reed will make his second consecutive start with the Vikings.
Olisaemeka Udoh could make his second start of the season Sunday after replacing Brian O'Neill in Green Bay on Jan. 1. The Vikings also designated backup tackle Blake Brandel for return from Injured Reserve on Wednesday, opening his practice window.
Defensively, Lewis said a key factor will be limiting Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
In the Vikings four losses this season, Minnesota allowed opponents to rush for 611 yards, averaging 4.5 per carry, and score seven touchdowns.
Minnesota also ranked 20th in opposing rushing yards per game (123.1) and 22nd in yards per attempt (4.5) in the regular season.
Barkley gained 84 yards on 14 carries and scored a touchdown during the Giants Week 16 matchup with Minnesota.
The Vikings attempt to stop him mirrored their strategies in stopping the run most of this season. They align in a light box and ask their edge defenders to contain space on the outside and mandate their defensive tackles eat up blocks on the interior. New York feasted off that approach, tallying more expected points added per rush against the Vikings than in any other game this season.
Cousins' jersey displayed in Pro Football Hall of Fame
Cousins has led the Vikings to eight fourth-quarter comebacks this season, which tied Matthew Stafford for the most in a single season in NFL history.
None of them were bigger than the one he led against the Colts in Week 15. Trailing by 33 at halftime, Cousins and the Vikings orchestrated the largest comeback in NFL history, outscoring Indianapolis 39-3 in the second half and overtime to earn a 39-36 victory.
Cousins completed 34 of his 54 pass attempts for a career-high 460 yards and tied his personal best with four passing touchdowns.
To commemorate the comeback, Cousins' jersey from the game has been sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.