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Vikings Looking to Field Fully-Healthy Offense for 1st Time Since Week 6

EAGAN, Minn. — NFL players know that deep playoff runs are to be treasured and savored, as they simply don't happen each and every season.

Teams need a combination of talent, discipline and perhaps a little luck in order to have the chance to play deep into January … and possibly beyond.

But teams also need to be healthy in order to have their best players on the field and have the depth required to withstand the grind of multiple playoff games.

As the Vikings prepare for Sunday's road Wild Card game against the Saints — a tilt Minnesota hopes is the first of four playoff contests — it appears things may be falling into place for that final attribute.

"It's great to have everybody back. That's the dream mentality," said Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. "This is the NFL, and guys get banged up, and the odds of having everybody at full strength going into the playoffs is very low around the league.

"We've got everybody healthy, and everybody's going to be ready to go," Cook added. "It should be a fun matchup."

Added Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs: "We definitely got a lot of guys back, a lot of key guys, so we definitely look forward them being part of the puzzle as far as getting this thing going."

Minnesota offense finished eighth in the NFL during the 2019 season with 25.4 points per game and ranked 16th in the league with 353.5 yards per game.

Not bad for an offense that was missing at least one key piece to the unit for almost the past three months.

In fact, you have to look all the way back to Week 6 — a 38-20 win over the Eagles — when the Vikings had their entire cast of offensive playmakers on the field at the same time for a full game.

Let's recap how various players missed time, and what their impact is on the Vikings offense.

Running back Dalvin Cook missed the last two games of the season with a shoulder injury. He was also limited in three games before that — playing less than 50 percent of the offensive snaps — due to a chest injury.

Cook, who rushed for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019, emphasized Wednesday that he'll be out there Sunday against the Saints.

"I definitely feel refreshed," Cook said. "I won't put a percentage on it. If I was whatever percentage, I'll be out there on Sunday.

"I'm going to be ready to go, I'm going to be at full strength," Cook added, "and I'm looking for a good football game."

When healthy, Cook makes the Vikings offense go, even when he doesn't get the ball. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been highly-effective on play-action passes this season, and that partly stems from defenses focusing in on Cook's home-run ability.

"He's just a tremendous player, and obviously having your best players on the field helps you," Cousins said. "We're excited to have him, and I expect him to be a great contributor, as he has been all season."

Added Diggs: "He definitely changes the game, as far as the running game and the passing game."

Cook's backup, rookie Alexander Mattison, has also been on the mend with ankle injury suffered in Week 14 against the Lions. Mattison, who ran for 462 yards and a touchdown, missed the final three games of the regular season.

The 2019 third-round pick said Wednesday that he, too, expects to be good to go for his first-career playoff game.

"I used this time to heal, so it definitely was helpful," Mattison said. "Taking it day-by-day and trying to heal up even more. I'll be ready to go."

Mattison may not be the big-play threat that Cook is, but the former Boise State standout brings a bruising style that can wear on opponents.

The Vikings averaged 142.5 rushing yards per game in the 11 full games that Cook and Mattison saw the field together. The duo accounted for 1,341 of the 1,567 total rushing yards Minnesota piled up during that time, good for 86 percent of the rushing output.

If Cook and Mattison can return to their mid or early-season selves, it should allow the Vikings to be balanced and create plays in the passing attack.

That could mean a big day for wide receiver Adam Thielen, who has endured a frustrating 2019 campaign while dealing with a lingering hamstring injury.

Thielen has proven himself to be a Pro Bowl player when healthy, but the Minnesota native was limited to just 10 games in 2019. Perhaps that number should be eight, as Thielen was injured midway through the first quarter in Week 7 against the Lions and missed the majority of the game. He then tried to return in Week 9 against Kansas City but played just seven snaps.

Even with half a season gone, Thielen still tied for the team lead with six touchdown catches. Thielen, who had 30 receptions for 418 yards, returned in Week 15 against the Chargers and also played in Week 16 against the Packers. (He was one of numerous starters to be held out in the regular-season finale against the Bears).

Diggs knows the value that Thielen brings to the Vikings, as the duo makes up one of the NFL's top pass-catching tandems when healthy.

"I always want success for my guys, especially a guy like him," Diggs said. "He got an injury and fought to come back with his teammates, so I look forward to him having a big game.

"I'm always anticipating him having a good one, and it's nothing different this time," Diggs added.

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

The last time the Vikings had the above trio in the lineup together — plus the likes of Cousins, Diggs and Kyle Rudolph — Minnesota racked up 447 yards of offense and put up 38 points on an eventual division winner in Philadelphia.

They will face another division winner Sunday in the Saints, a team that went 13-3 and cruised to an NFC South title — the third straight division crown for New Orleans.

The atmosphere won't be easy either, as Vikings players and coaches are expecting a raucous and boisterous crowd at the Superdome on Sunday.

But the Vikings hope that with their full offensive arsenal at their disposal, Minnesota can be balanced and make enough plays to advance to the Divisional round.

"It's never a good feeling when you don't have a complete team or don't have all your guys out there," Mattison said. "Even if it's one guy or two guys, or a handful of guys, that can make a difference. Hopefully us being back is big."

Added Cook: "We definitely need everybody. Every piece. Everybody is a key piece to this puzzle. Having all our guys healthy in the backfield, all around healthy on the field … we're going to need everybody when we go to New Orleans this week."

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