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Playoff prediction: Minnesota’s defense will somehow get even better

What, you think they’ve peaked already?

NFL: DEC 31 Bears at Vikings

This is another of our theme week posts with our fellow SB Nation football blogs, and this week’s theme is centered around making some sort of playoff prediction.

This week, the Minnesota Vikings get to watch most of the rest of the NFC playoff field beat up on each other to see who gets the privilege of traveling to the NFL’s best stadium to get up close and personal with the NFL’s best defense. We’ve already touched on just how good the Vikings’ defense has been at U.S. Bank Stadium this season, so what can we expect for the playoffs?

Frankly, I think this defense is just getting warmed up.

This team has great playmakers at every level of the defense, starting up front. Sure, guys like Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph get a lot of the attention, and deservedly so. But there’s a lot more to the Vikings’ front than that. We’ve seen Tom Johnson make the jump from pass rush specialist to full-time starter. Brian Robison has adapted to his role as a backup and has made some huge plays over the past few weeks. Shamar Stephen has acquitted himself as a big piece of this line rotation as well. Opposing teams don’t get breaks when one of the starters rotates out, and that’s big when you get to the postseason.

At linebacker, we have what might be the NFL’s best tandem in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Barr has shaken off the down 2016 season he had and is back to making plays all over the field, whether it’s in coverage or chasing down runners. Kendricks has proven to be the same, as he and his former UCLA teammate rarely let anything get past them to the second level.

However, the strongest unit. . .and it feels weird to say this, given how strong the front seven is. . .might be in the secondary. Xavier Rhodes is the NFL’s best corner, and Harrison Smith is the NFL’s best safety. We know those things. However, the rest of this secondary has really risen to meet their level of play. Trae Waynes, much maligned over his first couple of seasons in the league, has really turned the corner over the past few weeks. Mackensie Alexander, who looked so badly lost as a rookie, has been a breath of fresh air. Then, of course, there’s the ageless Terence Newman, who can play anywhere in the back of the defense and be effective. This team is, legitimately, four deep at the cornerback position, and with the pass-happy offenses that dominate the NFC, that could be a huge advantage. Not to mention the play of Andrew Sendejo next to Smith at safety, and even Anthony Harris has shown that he can do the job at a high level when called upon.

The defense should also have the advantage of some of the most raucous home crowds in recent memory. Yes, regular season games at U.S. Bank Stadium have been loud, but that should serve as a baseline for what we see in the postseason when the other team has the football. Quarterbacks aren’t going to be able to change plays, tackles aren’t going to hear snap counts, and those things could give the Vikings an even greater advantage. In addition, I think we can assume that Mike Zimmer and George Edwards haven’t completely emptied the proverbial bag of tricks yet. This defense is going to hit teams from every conceivable direction in ways they haven’t even thought about yet.

For most of this season, we’ve heard a lot about how scary teams other than the Vikings are. But, the Vikings have played everyone below them on the postseason ladder, and emerged with a 3-1 record in those games. In the two games at U.S. Bank Stadium against playoff teams this year, the Vikings’ defense drilled both the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams, either of whom the purple could see in the divisional round.

In eight regular season games, the Vikings gave up an average of 12.5 points/game at U.S. Bank Stadium. In the postseason? Opposing teams might be lucky to reach that number. It’s going to be a whole lot of fun to watch.