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The Skinny Post: Vikings Embracing Underdog Role vs. Saints

EAGAN, Minn. — The calendar has flipped to 2020, which means a fresh start as the new year begins.

That means anything is possible for the Vikings, who are starting a new season of their own Sunday against the Saints in the Wild Card round of the NFC Playoffs.

Minnesota might be heavy underdogs going into New Orleans, but it's a role Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and his team are embracing.

"I don't think anybody believes that we can win this game," Zimmer said. "So, we go in there and we slug it out. All I really care about is that 53 guys believe."

Added Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen: "It's a new year, which is great. Fresh start, and it's a new season. I don't care what happened before or what kind of numbers happened for anybody, this is a new season and it's time to go and show what we can do as a team."

The Vikings posted double-digit wins for the 20th time in franchise history, and certainly have the pieces on both sides of the ball to get a win in New Orleans.

But they will have to be at their best in all phases to shock the world and get past the Saints, especially on the road and in a building that will be as loud as any the Vikings have played in this season.

"That's what we play for," said Vikings safety Harrison Smith. "We have to bring our 'A' game."

Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:

Rely on the veterans | By @Eric_L_Smith

The Vikings secondary took a hit Friday when the team announced that cornerback Mike Hughes is headed to Injured Reserve with a neck injury, and fellow cornerback Mackensie Alexander will miss Sunday's game with a knee injury.

That means Minnesota will rely on the likes of Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Holton Hill Kris Boyd and Marcus Sherels at cornerback, with safety Jayron Kearse a possibility to play in the slot.

That's hardly an ideal situation, especially going against future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, star wide receiver Michael Thomas and an offense that averaged 36.3 points per game over the past seven games.

Zimmer's " Why not us?' " rhetorical question of a few days ago will continue to be part of the team's mindset.

It's not as if the Vikings defense features a bunch of rookies and guys who have never been in the playoffs before.

In fact, here are the following players who have been in the Vikings defense for at least five seasons — and who helped Minnesota past New Orleans in the most-recent playoff matchup: Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen, Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Rhodes, Waynes, Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris and Andrew Sendejo.

That's 11 players who could all be on the field, including most at the same time against Brees and the Saints offense.

Griffen explained how the defense approaches a playoff game:

"Whatever your job is on any given play, just go out there and dominate. Be smart, be aggressive and go play," Griffen said. "We have to leave it all out there on the line. It's a great opportunity to show the world what we've got."

This might be the best offense the Vikings could see all season, even if Minnesota advances in the postseason.

But with the stakes as high as ever, the Vikings will look for their battle-tested defense to make enough plays to come away with a win.

Attacking the Saints run defense | By @LindseyMNSports

The Saints are stingy against the run.

During the regular season, New Orleans' defense ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (91.3) after ranking second overall in 2018.

After a closer look, the Saints numbers have been all over the board. They allowed teams to rush for more than 100 yards on seven occasions this season, even allowing more than 140 yards four times. But they also limited teams to under 50 yards rushing on six occasions. 

One stat that can't be skewed, however, is this: New Orleans has not allow an individual player to rush for 100 yards in 42 games (including postseason contests). The last player to gain more than 100 yards on the ground against the Saints? Samaje Perine, who racked up 117 yards for Washington in Week 11 of 2017. Interestingly, Kirk Cousins was the Redskins quarterback at the time. While it's important to not read toomuch into that fact, it's notable in the fact that Washington ran a similar system to the one Minnesota runs with Cousins now.

Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 127 yards against the Saints in his regular-season debut, is planning to return to action after missing the Vikings final two regular-season games with an injury. Is the combination of Cook, the Vikings offensive line and game plan up for the challenge of breaking New Orleans' defensive streak?

Return game dynamics | By @pcraigers

The very first postseason meeting between the Vikings and Saints featured an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown by Anthony Carter. That was 32 years ago today.

In honor of that play, here's a brief ode to Sunday's likely punt returners.

The Vikings on Friday announced they have re-re-signed Marcus Sherels, the franchise's all-time leader in punt returns (237), yards (2,480) and touchdowns (five). Sherels has returned six punts for 51 yards in four postseason games.

There's a stark contrast in experience between Sherels and Saints rookie Deonte Harris, who were both undrafted out of their respective colleges but have shown effectiveness in the NFL.

Everyone within a stone's throw of Minnesota knows that Sherels, a Rochester native, played collegiately at the University of Minnesota.

Harris, who played at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, led the NFL this season with 36 punt returns and 338 yards (9.4 yards per punt, fourth in NFL). He also returned 24 kickoffs a total of 644 yards for an average of 26.8 that ranked third in the NFL en route to Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.

"He's electric, now. He's everything you want in a return specialist," Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf said Thursday. "He's not tall, which makes him harder to find, and he's elusive. He's excellent at cuts, and he's got really good vision. He's got that running back style, and they block.

"They're fundamentally very well coached, very sound," Maalouf added. "I've known the coordinator there for a long time, and he's done nothing but a good job there and everywhere he's really been. Having a very good returner like that just helps them."

Sherels signed with New Orleans as a free agent this offseason and worked with Harris.

"He's a special player, a special talent," Sherels said. "He's really quick, really fast, catches the ball well, so we've got our hands full."

Substantial Stats

— Sunday's game will mark Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's 100th game (excludes preseason) with Minnesota. Since taking the helm in 2014, Zimmer is 57-38-1 in regular-season games and 1-2 in the postseason.

— Vikings QB Kirk Cousins' passer rating of 107.4 is the league's fourth-highest behind Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill (117.5), New Orleans' Drew Brees (116.3) and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson (113.3). It also was the second-highest passer rating by a Vikings QB in a season, edging out Favre's 107.2 and trailing only the 110.9 by Daunte Culpepper in 2004.

— Vikings kicker Dan Bailey was fantastic through the regular season, making 27-of-29 (93.1 percent) of his field goal attempts. His only two misses occurred at Green Bay and at Detroit in Weeks 2 and 7, respectively. Minnesota is fourth-best in field goal rate behind Jacksonville (97.1), Baltimore (96.6) and Pittsburgh (93.6).

— The 2019 Saints are just the third 13-3 team to play in the Wild Card round since 1990, when the NFL expanded to a six-team field for each conference. The other two teams to fit the situation? The 2011 Saints, who advanced to the Divisional round and lost to San Francisco, and the 1999 Titans, who advanced to Super Bowl XXXIV.

Quotable

"There's always going to be haters. You've always got haters in the world. Everyone is going to count us out, but we know who we've got in this locker room. I believe in each and every one of us to go out there and do our job at a high level and hold each other accountable."

— Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen

Purple on Purple

The Vikings will don all-Purple uniforms for Sunday's game, as they will wear their traditional home jerseys along with their usual road pants.

These uniforms are different from the #PrimetimePurple ones that the Vikings wore earlier this season.

The Vikings have worn the combination of purple jerseys and pants six times in team history, and they are 3-3 in such games.

Oct. 11, 1964 vs. Detroit, L 24-20

Dec. 17, 2007 vs. Chicago, W 20-13 on Monday Night Football

Nov. 7, 2010 vs. Arizona, W 27-24

Oct. 27, 2013 vs. Green Bay, L 44-31 on Sunday Night Football

Dec. 1, 2016 vs. Dallas, L 17-15 on Thursday Night Football

Oct. 24, 2019 vs. Washington, W 19-9 on Thursday Night Football

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