We normally only publish our Mailbag on Monday mornings, but with the Vikings preparing to face the Saints in New Orleans on Sunday, we wanted to do a special edition leading into the Wild Card game.
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We'll start by grouping a couple of related questions…
We know that the defense is going to game-plan to try to slow down the Saints offense. ... Is it wise for our offense to be game-planning to have to air the ball out in a high-scoring game? If we get behind, I fear our game plan will be a failure if we are not planning on a high-scoring game.
— Troy Tomford
The Vikings haven't won against a double-digit win team this season. Can we actually win in New Orleans? Can the defense stop the Saints offense, or will it have to be a shootout?
— Tomas from Buenos Aires
I wanted to answer these questions together because of the overlap.
The Saints offense has been prolific, scoring 34-plus points in six of their final seven games.
I'm sure that the offensive coaches are working to find explosive plays against the Saints defense that could produce points or flip field position.
But perhaps the best thing to do is to sustain long drives to keep the ball away from Drew Brees.
In the three losses by New Orleans this season, the Saints allowed 115 yards on 30 carries (LAR), 143 on 34 (ATL) and 162 on 24 (SF). The Rams won time of possession by a little (it also helped Los Angeles when Brees left the game early), and the Falcons kept the ball for 33:46. The 49ers actually lost time of possession, but that was a tradeoff for having five plays of 31-plus yards, including a 75-yard touchdown.
The other component is that the Vikings must cap their quality possessions with touchdowns instead of field goals.
The good news is that Dalvin Cook is on track to return. He'll command respect toward the running game, and Kirk Cousins has excelled on deep passes to Stefon Diggs for much of the season. Adam Thielen also has worked his way back from a hamstring injury that he suffered in Week 7.
Minnesota scored 28 or more points eight times in 2019, which is the most in any season under Head Coach Mike Zimmer. The Vikings went 7-1 in such games this season and are 28-3-1 in regular-season games under Zimmer when reaching 28 or more points.
Hey, who do you think will guard Michael Thomas, and if it is [Xavier] Rhodes, what needs to be done so he doesn't let up any scores?
It could be Xavier Rhodes, or it could be a combination of players.
When the teams last met in the playoffs, Rhodes covered Thomas quite a bit and helped hold him to two catches for 31 yards in the first half. Thomas, however, bounced back with five catches for 54 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
The Vikings have done less "traveling" with Rhodes, where he follows a specific receiver wherever, this season than the past couple of years. Minnesota also used a rotation at cornerback late in the season.
The Saints have had the luxury of moving Thomas to different spots before the snap to try to target specific matchups. If they move Thomas to the slot, then it could be Mackensie Alexander or Mike Hughes lining up across from him.
Both Alexander and Hughes are on the injury report this week. Minnesota also could try to match size for size with safety Jayron Kearse, who had nice coverage on Broncos tight end Noah Fant at the end of the Denver game, but he's a safety/big nickel more so than a corner.
It might take a village to slow down Thomas, who set an NFL single-season receptions record with 149 catches in 2019.
The O-line is the key! If Cousins is continually running for his life, we are in for a long afternoon. Let Cousins play his game...he is best when the 2-minute warning is perpetual. Scripting plays is great until the other side knows exactly your next move. Creativity!! Three into the middle and punt...seriously? I would love a fifth and successful Super Bowl appearance but I will keep a viable Plan B option close.
You are correct that it will be important for the offensive line to have a good game, even with the Saints missing Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport up front.
Cam Jordan, son of the 2019 Vikings Ring of Honor inductee Steve Jordan, recorded 15.5 sacks this season and is relentless. Expect the Vikings to pay him special attention.
It seems like the Packers did some things on defense to take away the bootlegs and rollouts that have been so helpful for the offense this season. I don't really know why other teams didn't try to emulate what they did between Week 2 and Week 16. Maybe their personnel doesn't allow for it to happen?
You are right that Kirk has played well in the 2-minute, but the tradeoff could be the risk of not keeping the ball away from Drew Brees, which can be pretty important.
Can the Minnesota Vikings beat the Saints in the playoffs? Can the quarterback and running back do better in the playoffs? I'm a huge fan of Kyle Rudolph.
— Kory and Teresa from Monticello
Cousins' passer rating of 107.4 ranked fourth in the NFL this season and was the second-highest by a Vikings quarterback in any single season. He also ranked seventh in yards per attempt (8.1) and tied for eighth with 26 touchdown passes.
He and the offense are looking to bounce back after a rough outing in Week 16.
Cook's potential return should help everyone.
He's so dynamic that defenses will have to maintain a focus on him, which should free some things up in the passing game for Cousins, Kyle Rudolph, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
Glad that you are a huge fan of Rudy...He's a great one to root for both for his accomplishments on the field and his relentless commitment to the community.
As you may know, Rudolph is the Vikings Community Man of the Year and the team's nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. You can show your support for Kyle in the Man of the Year Charity Challenge by using #WPMOYChallenge Rudolph. Fans helped him win last year.
Pro tip: your tweet can feature multiple mentions of #WPMOYChallenge Rudolph. Viktor the Viking helped out with this example:
I know Coach Zimmer was overstating when he said no one thinks his team can win this week. For the record, I don't see a team in the league the Vikings cannot beat. I like our talent across the board and on the bench and down to the guys wearing NFL logo issue on game day.
The only question is which Vikings version shows up. The one that [did not] beat anyone in the division except Detroit, or the one that played a pivotal role in causing at least three owners to look for new coaches and another to give fans reason to think a HOF bound QB will be looking for another team. Seven turnovers will have that effect.
Time will tell. I'm counting on the team that won 10 games. Not the one that lost 6.
— Jeff in Sacramento
I love the optimism, especially to open up a new decade, hopefully with a string of wins.
I think the roster that was built over the past few years and enhanced along the way with free agents and drafts is one that's built to compete in January football. I loved that the reserves played well against the Bears starters.
But the 2019 Vikings had their ups and downs. It's quite possible that they still haven't reached their peak performance. Into December, guys were still saying that they thought they could perform better.
We won't be able to plan on seven turnovers against Brees and Co. — New Orleans set an NFL record by committing a total of eight turnovers this whole season — but maybe we can get a couple of them. We have in recent history against the Saints.
The Vikings seem to be embracing an underdog role. It reminds me a little of the 2015 squad that seemed to sneak up on a few opponents. External opinions shouldn't affect a team's ability to execute between the lines on a game day.