It’s almost here.
We have waited for decades. It’s our turn now.
The Minnesota Vikings are about to start the most epic revenge tour of all time. First they’ll beat the Saints and make up for 2009. Then they’ll beat the Falcons and avenge the greatest team in NFL history that didn’t make the title game. Heck, maybe they’ll even get the Steelers to finish everything off in their own stadium and requite Super Bowl IX. It almost feels like everything is preordained. If the Vikings were ever going to finally win it all, wouldn’t vanquishing old demons on the way to being the first team to host the Super Bowl be the perfect way to do it?
IT’S HAPPENING!! REVENGE TOUR 2018!!!!
Except of course, it isn’t really a revenge tour at all. None of the current Vikings were even alive when Pittsburgh beat Minnesota at Tulane Stadium. (No, not even Terence Newman. So you know it was a long time ago.) Most of the players were in grade school when the Dirty Birds stole the NFC Championship at the Metrodome. And only one player on each side was on their teams’ rosters the last time the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings met in the playoffs—quarterback Drew Brees and defensive end Brian Robison, respectively.
When the Vikings take the field Sunday afternoon, revenge will be the furthest thing from their minds. Thankfully, they won’t need revenge to motivate them; a ring is all the dangling carrot players need. The opponents are important only because they are what stand between the Vikings and their goals. History lessons on old heartbreaks are only relevant to the fans.
But oh, how relevant it is to us fans. The specters of past playoff failures stick in our heads like a bad pop song. A big part of being a hardcore Vikings fan is the mental calluses you develop while enduring crushing disappointment. While the NFL has strict policies regarding what you can and can’t bring into their arenas, most of the purple-clad crowd that will pack US Bank Stadium on Sunday will be hauling in lots of extra baggage.
There’s no getting around the fact that Sunday’s game means more to us because it’s against New Orleans. Unfortunately, it’s hard to work up a ton of vitriol toward the one player remaining from the 2009 Saints. Brees is a surefire Hall of Famer, still really fun to watch, and by all accounts a great guy. The only thing you can really poke fun at him about is his choice of denim. Thankfully, there is one cornerstone of the franchise from 2009 that remains an easy target for Vikings venom: Head Coach Sean Payton.
Payton is finishing his 11th season as the helm of the Saints. It would be his 12th, but, you know...HE WAS SUSPENDED FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR BASED ON THE BOUNTYGATE SCANDAL HE LET HAPPEN RIGHT UNDER HIS NOSE DURING THE 2009 SEASON. A season that ended in very infamous fashion for the Vikings and a Super Bowl title for the Saints. Am I still bitter about it eight years later? Of course I am!
Even after coming back from his suspension for being a dirty dirty cheater, the Saints had a very good 2013 season and even won a playoff game. It marked the fourth straight season New Orleans made the postseason under Payton.
It got pretty rocky after that though. While Jeff Fisher was fired for his “7-9 bullshit” at the end the 2016 season, Payton actually lived it: the Saints finished exactly 7-9 for three straight years before hitting the jackpot in the draft and rebounding to an 11-5 record this year.
Payton is lauded as some sort of coaching wizard, especially on the offensive end. And that’s fair—New Orleans has never finished lower than sixth in total yardage under his watch. Of course, having a Hall of Famer at quarterback for the entirety of your tenure certainly makes you look a lot better—just ask Mike McCarthy.
While his history as an offensive coach is relatively unassailable, Payton’s in-game decision making can often be called into question. I’m not talking about going for it on 4th & 2 last week against the Panthers either. That decision was at least defensible and was roughly a coin flip for probability models. (Even if it was probably a thinly veiled attempt by Payton to snatch all the headlines for himself for being SO AGGRESSIVE AND BOLD AND PLAYING TO WIN.) If you go back to the Saints’ loss to the Rams that snapped their eight-game win streak earlier in the year, Payton’s decision to kick a field goal while down by 13 in the fourth quarter was completely perplexing and cost them a chance at a comeback. He often seems to make decisions based purely on emotion instead of logic.
That “emotion” has earned Payton a certain unfavorable reputation around the NFL. In fact, one might say that many players, coaches, and teams aren’t very big fans of his.
OK fine, I’ll quit sugar coating it: Sean Payton is kind of an asshole.
Just ask Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter, who had this incredibly awkward exchange with Payton at midfield after Tampa won their Week 17 game. Koetter’s “Good luck to ya” was most definitely a very polite way of saying “f**k off.”
Or you could ask Falcons running back Devonta Freeman. Payton made a choking gesture to Freeman from the sidelines in a game that Atlanta came back and won. Of course Payton said he “didn’t remember” doing it despite clear video evidence to the contrary, but Freeman certainly didn’t forget with one of the best two-word clapbacks in Twitter history:
Or you could ask just about any reporter that has had the displeasure of covering the Saints over the years. While Mike Zimmer can certainly be surly at times and Bill Belichick is the master of dismissing questions in his patented monotone, Payton can be a special brand of smug prick when dealing with the media.
Or you could ask fans of other NFC South teams that have to deal with Payton twice a year. When I asked a writer from another SB Nation site if they shared my disdain for him, the response I got was “Oh hell yeah, hating the Saints and Sean Payton is my #brand. I’ve got some things I’ve written for SBN about him being a giant baby.” The guys at Cat Scratch Reader had some fun at his expense by doing The Looks Like Game with Payton. It’s a great read, and if I may add my own:
Sean Payton looks like the ugly older brother of Ralphie from A Christmas Story that could never break into showbiz.
Payton is so loathed that CSR readers have even sent in their own hilarious stories about (very) close encounters with him.
If you still aren’t sure whether the league-wide disdain for the New Orleans Head Coach is justified: did you see his locker room celebration after the win over Carolina? He brought in a freaking broom! His guys had just allowed 413 yards to a team that fired their Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach two days after the game, yet they were dancing around like they had just won the damn Super Bowl!
Payton went 8-for-23 as a scab quarterback for the Bears in the 1987 strike season yet I’m certain that he carries himself like a grizzled NFL vet. You just KNOW he constantly tries to identify with his players by saying shit like “I get what you’re going through; I used to play in this league too.”
Of course, Saints fans will vehemently defend their coach to the bitter end. They have fully embraced his propensity to evade the rules and anger other teams. It’s their badge of honor. Saints fans are a lot like NASCAR fans—they think their game is the end-all, be-all while most of the country largely ignores them. “If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’! WHO DAT?! WOOO VOODOO GUMBO JAZZ MARDI GRAS BEADS!” New Orleans fans are some of the worst I have ever dealt with. You’d think people that support a team with an all-time record of 349-432-5 that blatantly cheated for their lone title would be more humble, yet they carry themselves like the Saints are some sort of model franchise. I cannot WAIT to purge them from my Twitter timeline.
Ahh. That was cathartic. Now that I have spent the better part of 1,000 words infuriating the entire state of Louisiana and its surrounding territories, let’s get to actually previewing the game.
While I obviously don’t think much of the Saints coach and their fans, I do acknowledge that they will be bringing a very good team to Minnesota. I said last week that I considered the Saints to be the Vikings’ biggest competition in the NFC bracket.
The two teams that take the field will obviously have some key differences from what we saw in the Monday night season opener. On the Vikings side, we probably won’t see Sam Bradford and we definitely won’t see Dalvin Cook, the two players that accounted for 483 total yards in Week 1. We won’t see Nick Easton at left guard either. Thankfully, the other 19 starters that handled the Saints to start the season should be on the field for the rematch. The Vikings have had relatively good injury luck overall this year, especially on defense.
On the other sideline, the Saints will have several important changes throughout their team. Sam Ekstrom detailed just how different New Orleans will look compared to Week 1. The biggest change was jettisoning Adrian Peterson in favor of a larger workload for probable Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara. While Kamara actually saw a decent workload of 31 snaps and 11 touches the first time around (compared to 9 and 6 respectively for AP), the Saints have since developed Kamara and Mark Ingram into the most prolific 1-2 punch in NFL history. The duo amassed a staggering 3,094 yards from scrimmage and 25 total touchdowns this season. New Orleans regularly uses both backs at the same time, often lining up Kamara as a very effective wideout.
While Ingram and Kamara are a handful for any defense, the Vikings have the personnel to keep them in check. Matthew Coller of 1500 ESPN and Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune both illustrated how Minnesota’s defenders are well-suited to stymie a lot of what the Saints like to do with their backs. Xavier Rhodes and the vastly improved Trae Waynes should be able to keep Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. from doing too much damage on the outside. That will give the defense more flexibility to key in on the Saints backs running and catching passes out of backfield.
Even if Minnesota can limit the effectiveness of the “boom and zoom” backs, there’s still the small matter of their all-world quarterback. Last week, the Panthers learned that the hard way. Carolina sold out to stop Ingram and Kamara, holding them to only 68 yards from scrimmage, and dared Drew Brees to beat them. Brees obliged to the tune of 376 yards and two touchdowns. When he has enough time to show off his historically great accuracy, there isn’t a pass he can’t complete. Mike Adams couldn’t have defended Josh Hill much better on this play and Brees simply threw his tight end open.
The Saints line kept Brees clean for the majority of the game against Carolina’s vaunted front seven. The hope for the Vikings is that their secondary will perform much better than the Panthers, which will lead to more opportunities for their front four to get home. No matter how talented your defense may be, you simply cannot allow Brees time to pick you apart. With left guard Andrus Peat going on the IR, I would expect the Minnesota defense to test backup Senio Kelemete with some blitzes up the middle. The best way to disrupt Brees’ famously quick release is to take the shortest path to him. I’m guessing we’ll see Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Harrison Smith attack as an extra rusher at least a handful of times.
Even if the Vikings can accomplish the tall task of limiting the Saints powerful offense, New Orleans is actually good on defense this year too. Arif did an excellent job of breaking down what makes New Orleans so dangerous on both sides of the ball over at Zone Coverage earlier in the week. On defense, the pass rush of Cameron Jordan combined with the smothering coverage of Marshon Lattimore and versatility of fellow rookie Marcus Williams allows the Saints to mix up their coverages and be very effective in a variety of ways.
Even when Jordan isn’t getting to the quarterback—which he did 13 times this season, equaling the sack total of Everson Griffen—he can still disrupt plays. Being the son of former Vikings tight end Steve Jordan, it’s no surprise that Cam is excellent with his hands. With J.J. Watt out, Jordan is the new king of batted passes. It’s part of the reason why he was Pro Football Focus’ top graded edge rusher this season. Case Keenum will need to be wary of Jordan on every passing play—even the ones where Jordan isn’t chasing him down.
We have already touched on how the Vikings might be able to keep up with a lot of what the Saints like to do on offense. It may not be so easy for New Orleans to stop some of Minnesota’s go-to offensive concepts.
One of the Vikings’ bread-and-butter plays this season has been rub routes across the middle where Kyle Rudolph opens up either Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen with a head of steam. Against man coverage, it basically serves as a legal pick to take one defender out of the picture. Against zone, it requires the defenders in the middle to communicate and perfectly time how they hand off coverage to the next player.
The Saints have been very tough to beat outside the numbers this season thanks to their new blood in the secondary, but they have been susceptible to these types of plays. This pass to Brenton Bersin last week is a good example of New Orleans being a little late in handing off their coverage.
The Panthers also had a good amount of success using pre-snap motion to confuse the coverage and create space for Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffrey. Look for Pat Shurmur to dial up a lot of plays that force Manti Te’o, Craig Robertson, and Vonn Bell to make quick decisions across the middle.
It’s doubtful that the Saints will key in on Jerick McKinnon as much as they did with McCaffrey last week, which is why I think Jet’s performance will be crucial on Sunday. He had only six touches in Week 1 since Cook was still around, but I could see him being a big part of the game plan on Sunday. If New Orleans focuses more on Keenum’s top three targets, McKinnon could find a lot of open space out of the backfield much like he did against the Bengals, Browns, and Bears earlier this season. Even if the Saints are able to mix up their coverages and get consistent pressure on Keenum, their run defense hasn’t been great this season. Latavius Murray should still be heavily involved to help keep third downs manageable and drives alive.
With two teams as talented as the Saints and Vikings are on both sides of the ball, this game could very well come down to how each team executes when it matters most. Both teams are in the top ten when it comes to red zone attempts per game and red zone touchdown percentage. That said, the Vikings were able to hold New Orleans to only one garbage time touchdown in five red zone attempts Week 1, a big reason why they coasted to victory.
If both teams hold to their regular season form on third down, the Vikings should have a big advantage on Sunday. The Vikings were third in the league in converting third downs on offense (43.5%) and one of the best teams ever at preventing them on defense (25.2%). Meanwhile the Saints were 19th on offense (37.6%) and 27th on defense (41.0%). Stop me if you’ve heard this cliché before, but keeping Drew Brees off the field is the best way to stop him.
Keeping Brees on the road has historically been a good way to stop him in the playoffs. His career postseason splits are pretty remarkable:
Drew Brees career playoff splits
|Yards per game
|Yards per game
Some of the contrast can be attributed to Brees throwing the ball a ton to try and catch up because defenses inferior to his current iteration of teammates put him in a hole. But his sterling home statistics still make me very glad that the Vikings earned home field advantage for this one.
Earning the bye may prove to be even more important for the Vikings on Sunday. The Saints got beat up and will have some crucial players either out or not at full capacity after their tough battle last week. Meanwhile, players like Pat Elflein, Rudolph, and Rhodes all got valuable time to rest their ailments.
Even with the built-in benefits of being the better seed, the Vikings will have to play a great game on both sides of the ball if they hope to advance to the NFC Championship. To be honest, my level of confidence has fluctuated back and forth between “SUPER BOWL BABY!” and “unadulterated existential dread” almost by the hour throughout the week. I know how good this Vikings team is, yet I can’t quite evade the dark clouds of past disasters.
I’m sure I’ll be a puddle of nerves by the time Sunday afternoon rolls around, but the more I watch of the Saints defense, the more I think the Vikings can consistently move the ball on them as long as they avoid negative plays. The Saints feast on sacks and turnovers. If Keenum and the Vikings offense can continue to evade the pressure and take care of the ball as well as they have for most of the past three months, I like their chances.
On defense, getting Brees off of his spot consistently should be the Vikings’ highest priority. As the Panthers showed last week, letting Brees sit in clean pockets and pick you apart is a death sentence. I’d love to see Griffen have a monstrous game—he hasn’t been quite the same since his foot injury, so hopefully the week off has him re-energized. The Vikings don’t necessarily need a ton of sacks but they do need a lot of disruption to stop an absolutely loaded offensive arsenal.
If the Vikings play like they’re capable and pull off the victory, it will show everyone that this team is truly a championship contender. The players will simply be happy to make it one step closer to a title, but fans will definitely savor the sweet sensation of revenge for the Saints’ past transgressions.
And what better way to show that this team is destined for something special than poetically bookending New Orleans’ season with defeats at US Bank Stadium and wiping the ever-present smug smirk off of Sean Payton’s tiny mouth?
The North remembers, Sean.
Vikings 24, Saints 20
And now for the rest of my Divisional Round picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Falcons over EAGLES
The one thing I’m worried about: EVERYONE is picking the Falcons. Yes, Nick Foles was atrocious down the stretch. Yes, the Falcons look like they’re hitting their stride at the perfect time. But the Eagles still finished the season second in weighted DVOA on defense. The Falcons have struggled most of the year in the red zone. If Philadelphia can keep this one AFC South levels of ugly, they could definitely win as home underdogs.
I mean, I’m not actually going to pick the Eagles—because eww, Nick Foles—but I wouldn’t be totally surprised if they won on Saturday.
PATRIOTS over Titans
If you throw out the game against the Steelers—a game they totally should have lost—here are the final weighted DVOA rankings of every team the Patriots played since their Week 9 bye:
The Titans finished 21st. New England will likely dominate this game and be the favorite in the AFC Championship game next week. But keep this incredibly easy path in mind on the off chance they end up playing a very important game against our favorite team in three weeks.
STEELERS over Jaguars
Hot take: I don’t think Ben Roethlisberger will throw five interceptions this time around. I think we’ll see Pittsburgh grind out a methodical victory while we’re pacing back and forth in our living rooms anxiously awaiting the 3:40 kickoff Sunday.
Last week: 3-1
Regular season: 169-87