NEW ORLEANS – New Orleans set an NFL single-season record for fewest turnovers with just eight giveaways during the 2019 regular season.
The Vikings knew it would be tough to force turnovers by a dynamic Saints offense, especially in their home stadium during Wild Card weekend.
But Anthony Harris embraces a challenge.
With just over two minutes remaining in the first half, New Orleans faced a third-and-6, and quarterback Drew Brees fired deep down the middle for Ted Ginn, Jr. The ball was met by all-purple instead of all-white, however, when Harris snagged it out of the air.
"I just tried to play my coverage. Eliminate the threats," Harris said postgame. "Then I just got a good break, tried to track the ball, and from there it was just attacking it and not being satisfied with the pass breakup."
The pick marked Harris' first takeaway in a playoff game. He tied for the league lead with six interceptions in the regular season.
His resume of interceptions this season include some of the league's top passers, including Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. There's prestige in adding Brees to the list. He brushed off the praise, though. The stat he's most concerned about is the "W" earned with a thrilling walk-off touchdown in overtime that advances Minnesota to the Divisional round of the playoffs.
"I'm not really focusing on any of that individual stuff right now," Harris said. "It's just going week-to-week, staying alive, staying present, and doing what we're trying to do as a team – and not worrying about individual play.
"That's what everybody's doing right now – trying to sacrifice and do your job so everybody can be successful around you. Just playing together," he added.
Harris' pick swung momentum in Minnesota's favor and enabled the Vikings to continue playing complementary football. Kirk Cousins and the offense got another shot with favorable field position, and they capped an effective drive with a Dalvin Cook touchdown to go up 13-10 at the half.
"They battled all day," Harris said of the offense. "They kept fighting, kept swinging, stayed together and kept believing. And when there were tight moments, they made the plays. I'm just happy that they were able to do that and we were able to [win] as a team."
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer called the interception "huge" for the team.
"We did a nice job of covering it deep, and then he was able to undercut it a bit," he said.
Harris' wasn't the only takeaway of the afternoon.
The Vikings defensive line, led by Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, put pressure on Brees all day long, and it came up big late in the fourth quarter.
Minnesota clung to a 3-point lead, but Brees and Co. looked poised to strike with a first-and-10 on the Vikings 20. That is, until Hunter got there with the strip sack. A burst of Purple went after the loose ball, and it was second-year defensive tackle Jalyn Holmes who recovered the ball.
Griffen called Hunter's play "big time" at a crucial point of the game.
"[Danielle] came around, I don't know what he beat him with. I wanted to go scoop-and-score; I kicked the ball, and then [Jalyn] picked it up, and it was big," Griffen said. "It was big for us."
Although the Vikings next possession ended in a punt, the turnover still stopped New Orleans' drive, allowed Minnesota to eat more time off the clock and forced the Saints to settle for an end-of-game field goal to force overtime instead of having an opportunity at a game-winning kick.
Hunter told reporters earlier in the week how difficult it was to rush Brees, who is known for getting his passes out quickly.
Hunter explained that he and the other lineman had stayed committed to "setting up" the Saints line for the right moment.
"L.J. (Linval Joseph) was talking to me the whole game about taking him inside, and I was like, 'Patient, bro. I'm trying to set him up first,' Hunter recalled. "There was one play, I jumped out and took the inside move, and L.J. made sure the guard didn't come out to block me.
"The quarterback was right there, and in that situation, we try to get the ball out," he continued. "Brees, when he's going down, he's always trying to throw the ball or something like that, so we try to make sure you secure the tackle and then try to make something happen."
View postgame celebration images that followed the Vikings win over the Saints.
Brees was asked during his postgame press conference about the Vikings pass rush.
"They are two of the best defensive ends in the league, especially the pair. You cannot just focus on one," he responded. "And oh, by the way, they have some good interior guys and good pressure players at the linebacker and safety positions, as well. You have to have a plan for all of those guys. I think we understood that it was going to be a battle, and there are times where they're going to get you."
Minnesota certainly did just that.
Brees finished the day 26-of-33 for 208 yards, one touchdown and one interception with a passer rating of 90.4.
Defensive success also resulted in relatively quiet outings from Saints star receiver Michael Thomas (70 yards) and running back duo Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, who combined for just 42 yards on the ground.
Minnesota especially clamped down defensively on third downs, allowing New Orleans to convert just four of 11 (36 percent) of their attempts.
"I think not letting them get to third-and-short was key because when they did, they had some success," safety Harrison Smith said. "They're a good football team. They're always going to have wrinkles here and there. But when we had to have it, we stepped up."
Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks emphasized the importance of communication as a unit.
"We let each other know what the down-and-distance was, what we could expect. We got after the quarterback in our four-man rushes, and I feel like we just made good plays," Kendricks said. "We had an interception by Ant on a deep throw. Everson had a sack. Danielle had a sack-fumble, you know? That's just winning football."
And don't forget, the Vikings did it all without two key pieces of their defense.
Cornerback Mike Hughes (neck) was placed on Injured Reserve last week, ending his second pro season, and nickel back Mackensie Alexander (knee) was sidelined for the playoff contest. Teammates stepped up in their absence, including safety Andrew Sendejo, who often was called on to defend the slot and had a key pass breakup in the second quarter.
"Sendejo, 'Hollywood' – Holton [Hill], if you don't know that – Kris Boyd, whoever's out there, Jayron [Kearse], whoever. Everybody's going to make plays," Smith said.
Zimmer said they had to "mix up the coverages a little bit" with a short-handed secondary.
"We had some pressures in there. They changed up a couple of times, but we didn't really give them a big dose of anything today," he said. "It was a lot of different looks."
Having entered the postseason off a pair of losses, the Vikings were counted out by just about everybody – except themselves.
Smith pointed back to a postseason hype video released last week by the NFL that highlighted 10 of the 12 teams, omitting Minnesota and Philadelphia.
"The NFL didn't even put us in the playoff video. It is what it is," Smith said with a smile. "We don't really care; it doesn't determine the ball game. We just know it's about us and nobody else."