The stage is set for one of the most anticipated games in Vikings history today, as the team is set to play host to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, with kickoff scheduled for 3:40 PM CT at U.S. Bank Stadium.
After practicing a few times last week before taking some much-needed time to rest during their hard-earned bye week, the Vikings returned to Winter Park on Monday knowing that Drew Brees and the high-flying Saints would be their first obstacle on their quest to be the first team in NFL history to play in the Super Bowl inside their home stadium. The Saints advanced past the Wild Card round after Sunday's 31-26 win over the Panthers, their third win against Carolina this season.
In that game, Brees, who by his Hall of Fame standard had a bit of a down year, was surgical. He completed 23 of 33 passes for nearly 400 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns, including an 80-yard strike to Tedd Ginn Jr. early in the game. Both Ginn and Michael Thomas had 100 yards receiving on the day.
On paper, the Vikings appear to have counterpunches for both of those weapons, with All-Pro CB Xavier Rhodes possibly shadowing Thomas, with speedster Trae Waynes doing his best to keep up with Ginn flying down the field. And of course S Harrison Smith will be in the mix as well when it comes to trying to tame the Saints aerial attack.
Part of the decline in Brees' stats during the regular season was the emergence of the Saints' elite ground-game, with the duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara combining for 1,852 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns. And through the air, Kamara in particular was deadly, catching 81 passes for 826 yards and five touchdowns.
Adrian Peterson was of course still in the mix for the Saints when the Vikings beat them 29-19 in Week 1, but the Ingram / Kamara duo had 13 carries for 35 yards in that game, with Kamara adding four catches. The Vikings, thanks in large part to the front-seven, have done a great job all season containing high-end running backs on opposing teams, but no test will be tougher than what the Saints are bringing to the table later today.
The Vikings had just one sack in the Week 1 win over New Orleans, but as Head Coach Mike Zimmer detailed this week, for his defense the rush-plan changes on a week-to-week basis (see Week 16 vs. Brett Hundley in Green Bay), and sacks are not always the top priority for his pass-rushers. Vikings players spoke this week though about the importance of getting pressure on Brees and not letting him plant his foot and throw from the pocket, so big games from the likes of Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter could go a long way toward a Vikings victory.
As sexy as the match-up is between the Vikings defense and the Saints offense, the key to everything could be how the Vikings offense performs against an improved New Orleans defense. The group finished the year 17th in total defense in terms of yards allowed, but were 10th in points allowed per game at 20.4.
However, in their last two games, the group gave up 31 points and 455 yards of offense at Tampa Bay, and then last week against the Panthers, 26 points and 414 yards. As a team they have lost their last three road games and went 4-4 on the season away from New Orleans.
Cam Jordan, son of former Vikings TE Steve Jordan, had 13.0 sacks on the season and followed that up with a one-sack, two passes defended and two quarterback hits last week. Outside of him, their pass rush has fallen off a bit due in part to injuries recently, so containing Jordan figures to be a key part of the Vikings offensive strategy.
Rookie CB Marshon Lattimore has emerged as one of the NFL's best corners in his rookie season, having defended 18 passes and recording five interceptions. He will make life tough on either Adam Thielen or Stefon Diggs on any given play, highlighting the importance of other Vikings pass-catchers to win their matchups.
On the ground, Latavius Murray has received 20-plus carries in his last three games, accumulating 256 yards and three touchdowns over that stretch. Jerick McKinnon has run hot and cold for much of the season, but could emerge as a factor out of the backfield through the air, finishing the regular season with 51 catches.
There could new a new-look line in front of Murray and McKinnon, with Mike Remmers taking snaps this week at left guard in place of Nick Easton, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury vs. the Packers a few weeks ago. Rashod Hill would then continue to start at right tackle where he's been for most of the second half of the season. C Pat Elflein is not listed on the injury report this week after missing time late in the year due to a shoulder injury.
And oh yeah, then there's Case Keenum, who's making his first career postseason start. Keenum has been a rock for the Vikings all season long, and if he continues to convert third downs and not turn the ball over, the Vikings should have a great chance to win the first ever playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Both teams come into the game relatively healthy. CB Trae Waynes (foot) practiced Wednesday and Friday this week but is listed as questionable for the Vikings. For the Saints, WR Brandon Coleman was ruled out with a neck injury, while former Vikings LB Michael Mauti is questionable with an illness.
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