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Lunchbreak: Vikings Defense Could Be Key to Deep Postseason Run

The road to Super Bowl LIV begins this weekend, as eight teams will fight to stay alive in the postseason.

The four winners on Wild Card weekend will then be paired with the four teams who earned a first-round bye, as the playoff field will continue to get whittled down over the next few weeks.

Each of the dozen teams who made the dance are riding high, and surely believe they have what it takes to make a deep postseason run.

Bill Barnwell of recently look a look at each of the 12 teams and mapped out a path for how they can claim the Lombardi Trophy in a month.

For the Vikings, Barnwell noted that a strong defensive performance on third down could help generate such a run.

A return to the old third-down defense would be nice. The most likely driver of a turnaround on third down would be the pass rush, which ranks 16th in sack rate and 21st in pressure rate on third down.

[Vikings Head Coach] Mike Zimmer has had to blitz to create even that modest pressure rate; when the Vikings face third down and Zimmer hasn't called for blitzes, their 24.5% pressure rate ranks 31st in the league. Blitzing Brees is generally a recipe for disaster; he has posted a passer rating of 134.8 with 14 touchdown passes and no interceptions against the blitz in 2019. Your move, Zim.

The Vikings ranked first in the NFL on third-down percentage in 2017 (25.25 percent) and in 2018 (30.53 percent), but slipped to 19th in the league in 2019 with a success percentage of (39.72).

Barnwell said while Minnesota hasn't been as stout on third downs in recent years, that's likely because the Vikings have given up more yards on first and second downs.

He also noted that the Vikings will need consistent play from their secondary, along with a healthy Eric Kendricks, in order to get past the Saints and march on in the postseason.

Barnwell wrote:

Teams haven't needed to pick up as many yards as they did in prior years; opposing offenses have needed to pick up only 6.5 yards to convert on third downs against the Vikings this season, the second-fewest yards required on third down in football. From 2017-18, Vikings opponents needed 7.6 yards to convert their third downs, the third-longest average mark in football.

With Minnesota's cornerbacks struggling for most of the season, this isn't the same defense we've seen in years past. And if linebacker Eric Kendricks isn't able to play Sunday after leaving the Packers game with a quadriceps injury, it won't be anywhere near as good of a defense as the Vikings were during the regular season.

Kendricks had his best season in 2019 and deserved to be a Pro Bowler; he hasn't practiced since suffering the injury in Week 16, and the Packers were able to repeatedly exploit his absence after he left. You can imagine what Sean Payton is planning.

The Vikings finished 14th in the league allowing 341.6 total yards per game, but a strong red-zone performance helped Minnesota tie for fifth with 18.9 points allowed per game.

Kickoff between the Vikings and Saints is at 12:05 p.m. (CT) Sunday from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

Turnover-free teams

Don't expect many turnovers Sunday afternoon.

Tom Schad of USA TODAY took a deep dive into the Wild Card matchup between the Vikings and Saints, and noted that the teams like to keep possession of the ball.

Schad wrote:

The Saints and Vikings ranked second and fifth, respectively, in turnover differential during the regular season, and New Orleans took care of the ball at a historic level. The Saints set a new NFL record by committing just eight turnovers in 2019, eclipsing the previous record of 10 that was shared by the 2010 Patriots and 2011 49ers. So don't expect many turnovers in Sunday's game — but any that arise could prove to be especially impactful.

New Orleans was plus-15 in turnover differential in the regular season, while Minnesota was plus-11.

The Vikings had 31 takeaways (17 interceptions and 24 fumble recoveries), while turning the ball over 20 times (eight interceptions and 12 fumbles lost). A trio of those 20 turnovers were committed in Week 17 when the Vikings rested their starters.

Minnesota has one or zero giveaways in 10 of 16 regular-season games.

As Schad mentioned, the Saints rarely turned the ball over. Quarterback Drew Brees threw just four interceptions in 11 games.

New Orleans had eight games with zero turnovers and eight games with one turnover in 2019, as the Saints did not have multiple giveaways in any game.