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5 Vikings-Saints Storylines to Watch in Week 16

Much like this past January, the Vikings will be facing a Saints team as heavy underdogs in a de-facto elimination game for Minnesota on Friday.

The 36th overall contest between the two teams in a regular-season or playoff game will be the fourth time that the Vikings have played anyone on a Friday and fourth kickoff for the team on Christmas Day.

The Vikings (6-8) and Saints (10-4) have each dropped two in a row, with the Vikings falling from the seventh and final seed in the NFC playoffs and the Saints slipping from the conference's top seed to the No. 2 spot behind Green Bay.

With the playoffs expanding to seven teams per conference, only the No. 1 seed will receive a first-round bye, which means New Orleans badly wants to win out and get help from the Titans against the Packers this weekend.

Here are five storylines to watch this week presented by Verizon, as well as a link below to the game preview by the Vikings PR staff and a list of connections between the teams.

1. Affecting the passers

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has been under duress in December, taking 13 sacks and enduring 37 quarterback hits (according to league stats) in games against Jacksonville, at Tampa Bay and this past week against Chicago.

He's battled through it, but Minnesota's struggles to protect the pocket are affecting the overall offense. The Vikings will face a Saints squad that has 39 sacks this season. Trey Hendrickson, a third-round pick in 2017 out of Florida Atlantic, is tied for second in the NFL with 12.5 sacks. He entered the season with 6.5 sacks in his first three seasons and has capitalized on his first full season as a starter.

New Orleans has affected passers all season, evidenced by a sacks-per-pass-attempt rate of 8.35 percent (sixth-highest in the NFL) and an interception rate of 2.71 percent (seventh).

Saints QB Drew Brees returned to action Sunday against the Chiefs, his first action since suffering chest and lung injuries against San Francisco in Week 10. He was sacked once but only completed 15 of 34 passes (44.1 percent) against the defending Super Bowl champs. Kansas City recorded seven hits and an interception. Three of Brees' completions were touchdowns.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer received deserved credit for the creativity he used in the playoff game in January. Minnesota moved defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen to rush from the interior and win matchups against guards. Each totaled 1.5 sacks in the playoff game.

Hunter has missed the entire season with a neck injury from a non-padded practice in August. Griffen departed in the offseason. Minnesota's sacks-per-pass rate (4.56 percent) ranks 27th in the NFL and is almost half the rate of 7.99 percent by the Vikings defense in 2019.

2. Keeping up with Kamara

The impact of Eric Kendricks' absence from the lineup appears to be growing. The linebacker who has led Minnesota in tackles for five consecutive seasons missed his third consecutive game with a calf injury.

The Vikings were able to defeat the Jaguars, and the defense held its own at Tampa Bay, but this past week, Minnesota allowed 199 rushing yards to Chicago.

It is unknown if Kendricks will be able to return this week.

What is known is that New Orleans features one of the best dual-threat running backs in the game. Alvin Kamara leads the Saints in rushes (165), rushing yards (777), and rushing touchdowns (10), as well as receptions (80) and receiving yards (739). He'd have receiving touchdowns (five) as well, if not for six scores by tight end Jared Cook.

The Saints clearly turned to Kamara in the multigame absence of receiver Michael Thomas this season. Kamara is the only player in the NFL to lead his team in rushing and receiving yards in 2020.

Although his numbers aren't quite as high as Christian McCaffrey's gaudy line in Carolina last season (1,387 rushing and 1,005 receiving), Kamara will be quite the challenge for a banged-up Vikings defense that could be without Kendricks for a fourth consecutive game.

Look back on photos from past games between the Vikings and the Saints.

3. Chasing History

We covered Dalvin Cook’s conquest for his first rushing title on Monday. While he's going uphill in both directions to try to catch Tennessee's Derrick Henry, the fourth-year pro does lead the NFL with 1,833 scrimmage yards with two games to play.

Henry is second with 1,793 scrimmage yards, and Kamara is third at 1,516.

The Vikings record for scrimmage yards in a season is 2,314 by Adrian Peterson in 2012. While Cook might not catch that mark, he still can vault Robert Smith (1,869 in 2000) for third and then Peterson (1,885) for the second-most scrimmage yards by a Viking in a season.

Justin Jefferson has set the Vikings rookie record for receptions in a season with 73 and is now trying to top the 1,313 receiving yards by Randy Moss, who previously owned the receptions record with 69 catches in 1998.

Jefferson enters Week 16 with 1,182 yards, which is 131 back of Moss. Anquan Boldin set the NFL record with 1,377 receiving yards as a rookie in 2003 to pass Moss. Bill Groman racked up 1,473 with the Houston Oilers in 1960, the AFL's first season.

Cook and Jefferson were voted to the 2021 Pro Bowl this week.

View photos of the Vikings preparing to take on the Saints for Week 16 during practice at TCO Performance Center.

4. Any given Sunday? Or Monday? Or Friday?

On paper, the Vikings are huge underdogs against the Saints, but Minnesota will try to replicate what the previously winless Jets did Sunday in upsetting the Rams and what the Bengals did against their division-leading Steelers Monday.

Cincinnati's upset of Pittsburgh may have been an even bigger surprise to end Week 15 than New York toppling Los Angeles. In any case, both games serve as a reminder that the NFL can provide shoulder-shrugging results on any given game day.

The game's rare position on a Friday will mean that the NFL has played at least one game on each day of the Week during a chaotic 2020 season marked by reschedules forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

5. Rivalry renewed

This will be the fifth meeting between the Vikings and Saints since the 2017 season opener. Those games include playoff victories secured by Minnesota with touchdowns on the final plays of each game.

Throw in the long history between Zimmer and New Orleans Head Coach Sean Payton from their time together in Dallas (2003-05).

Both are mentees of Hall of Famer Bill Parcells. Zimmer's daughters babysat Payton's children a decade-and-a-half ago, and they remain close. It's always interesting to see a head coach with a defensive background (Zimmer) and offensive background (Payton) match wits.

Local Connections

Vikings WR Justin Jefferson (St. Rose), CB Cameron Dantzler (Hammond) and Irv Smith, Jr. (New Orleans) are from Louisiana.

Vikings-Saints Connections

Saints RB Latavius Murray (2017-18) and C/G Nick Easton (2016-17) are former Vikings.

New Orleans DE Cameron Jordan is the son of Vikings Ring of Honor TE Steve Jordan.

Minnesota Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Adam Zimmer was an assistant with the Saints from 2006-09, working for New Orleans Head Coach Sean Payton. Vikings Senior Defensive Assistant Dom Capers coached Saints defensive backs from 1986-91.

Professional Connections

Payton (2003-05) overlapped in Dallas with Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. Saints Assistant Head Coach/Tight Ends Dan Campbell (2003-05) and secondary coach Aaron Glenn (2005-06) were on the Cowboys roster for parts of their careers. Campbell overlapped as a coach with Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf while they were Dolphins assistants.

Glenn played for Capers with the Texans and overlapped with Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu while with the Jaguars.

Maalouf and Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones worked with Saints Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi and assistant special teams coach Phil Galiano at the Dolphins.

Minnesota Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak, Offensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator Rick Dennison, tight ends coach Brian Pariani, assistant offensive line coach Phil Rauscher, quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak and P Britton Colquitt overlapped in Denver with New Orleans receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

Gary Kubiak, Dennison and Pariani were with Houston during New Orleans DB D.J. Swearinger's early NFL years with Houston. Swearinger later teamed with Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins in Washington, where Rauscher was an assistant.

Gary Kubiak, Dennison and Pariani were in Baltimore with New Orleans T James Hurst in 2014.

Colquitt teamed with Saints LB Demario Davis while with the Browns in 2016.

Vikings RB Ameer Abdullah, Saints RB Dwayne Washington, FB Michael Burton and DB Johnson Bademosi [IR] are former Lions. New Orleans quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi overlapped with Abdullah in Detroit.

Minnesota receivers coach Andrew Janocko worked with Galiano in Tampa Bay from 2012-13 (and at Rutgers in 2011).

College Connections

Saints secondary coach Aaron Glenn (1992-93) and Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen (1992-95) played at Texas A&M when Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak was starting his coaching career with the Aggies.

Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf worked at Rutgers with Saints Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi and assistant special teams coach Phil Galiano.

Minnesota C Garrett Bradbury overlapped at N.C. State with New Orleans defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, who had previously worked with Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu at Southern California.

Vikings QB Kirk Cousins' career at Michigan State occurred within Saints offensive line coach Dan Roushar's time with the Spartans. Cousins teamed with New Orleans WR Bennie Fowler [IR] for two seasons.

Minnesota LB Ryan Connelly played with New Orleans OLB Zack Baun and T Ryan Ramczyk at Wisconsin.

Vikings CB Cameron Dantzler and Saints DB J.T. Gray teamed at Mississippi State.

Minnesota RB Dalvin Cook and New Orleans OL Derrick Kelly were teammates for two seasons at Florida State. Saints DB P.J. Williams teamed with Cook for the Seminoles in 2014.

Vikings DE Jalyn Holmes teamed with Saints CB Marshon Lattimore and WR Michael Thomas [IR] at Ohio State.

Minnesota WR Chad Beebe and New Orleans WR Tommylee Lewis were teammates for three seasons at Northern Illinois.

Vikings S Josh Metellus and Saints C/G Cesar Ruiz are first-year players out of Michigan.

Minnesota LB Troy Dye and New Orleans WR Juwan Johnson played together at Oregon in 2019. Johnson previously teamed with Vikings WR Dan Chisena and Saints P Blake Gillikin [IR] at Penn State.

Vikings LB Hardy Nickerson's lone season at Illinois overlapped with Saints DB Justin Hardee.

Minnesota CB Kris Boyd [IR] teamed with WR Lil'Jordan Humphrey and DL Malcolm Roach at Texas.

Vikings DE Danielle Hunter [IR] and Saints OLB Kwon Alexander teamed for three seasons at LSU.

Minnesota CB Mike Hughes [IR] and New Orleans WR Tre'Quan Smith went undefeated at UCF in 2017.

Vikings wide receivers coach Andrew Janocko and New Orleans FB Michael Burton overlapped at Rutgers.