There will be plenty on intriguing storylines on both sides of the ball Sunday when the Vikings and Saints square off in the Divisional round of the playoffs at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Matthew Coller of 1500ESPN.com is taking a look at one matchup each day leading up to the 3:40 p.m. (CT) kickoff and started his series with a possible 1-on-1 battle between Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas.
*In 2016, Xavier Rhodes established himself as one of the best corners in the NFL. He proved not only that he could slow down the best of the best, but he could shadow them when called upon. In 2017, Rhodes was asked to back up his breakout year against many of the league's elite receivers. He shadowed – and shut down – video game-cover types Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Julio Jones and A.J. Green. *
His Week 1 matchup with Michael Thomas didn't get nearly the hype of the others, in part because Thomas was only entering his second year and Adrian Peterson's return to Minnesota took the spotlight.
The Vikings effectively mixed their coverages against the Saints in Week 1 when Minnesota defeated New Orleans 29-19. Rhodes was credited with four tackles, and Thomas recorded five catches for 45 yards.
Rhodes had a pair of interceptions this season, while Thomas has played well in his first two seasons in the league with 196 catches and 14 touchdowns. Thomas had eight catches for 131 yards against Carolina last week.
Coller broke down what he expects to see Sunday:
Thomas does not have the pure speed of other top receivers (4.57 40-yard dash), but he has everything else. At 6-foot-3, Thomas's size allows him to make catches even when there is a cornerback tight in coverage. The former Ohio State receiver is impressively strong. He was among the tops in his draft class at the bench press. Rhodes explained Monday that Thomas is also on the same page with Brees:
"You can tell he and Drew have chemistry going," Rhodes said. "He knows [where] the ball is going to be located when it comes out of Drew's hands, and he adjusts to the ball really well. He runs great routes, he's pretty physical, too, so I'm looking forward to it being a battle."
Rhodes has a great skill set to match up with big receivers. He's tall (6-foot-1), speedy (4.43 40) and was a top jumper in his draft class, so he can make up the difference even when receivers gain separation for a moment. The Vikings' corner is also well-studied. He knows every receiver's tendencies, route combinations and mental makeup.
Rosenfels: How the Vikings can beat New Orleans
Sunday's playoff game is at the same location and involves the same two teams that met in Week 1.
But former Vikings quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who now writes for The Athletic, recently noted that much has changed between Minnesota and New Orleans.
Rosenfels recently wrote that he expects a classic showdown with an NFC Championship berth on the line.
Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for just 35 yards rushing in the season opener. They had more yards rushing in every game after that. Also, both backs have become major components of the passing game, combining for 1,242 receiving yards this season. Screens and 1-on-1 option routes have given Brees passing options out of the backfield. Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Harrison Smith would have their hands full.
Defensively, the Saints have become a scary unit for the first time since 2009. Rookie Marshon Lattimore is a special talent in the secondary. … Defensive end Cameron Jordan had 13 sacks this year and would need to be accounted for in drop-back protections.
Minnesota would be playing at home, in a dome, which would be to [Drew] Brees' liking as well. I still think Minnesota wins this one, 31-24. Xavier Rhodes and the secondary would win a lot of 1-on-1 matchups, and the Vikings could load the box to stop the run. Offensively, [Case] Keenum would move the ball enough, but he must finish drives with touchdowns.