Hey, do you guys remember the last time these two teams played?
Here’s a fun drinking game for this week’s Sunday Night Football broadcast: take a drink every time Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michelle Tafoya, or anyone else from the Football Night In America crew says the word “miracle.” You’ll be getting your stomach pumped before halftime!
The Minnesota Vikings are hosting the New Orleans Saints for the third time in just over 13 months this weekend; the matchup feels like a division rivalry with how the recent schedule has unfolded. There are a metric ton of storylines heading into this primetime battle. For example, Drew Brees seems to break an NFL record with every fifth pass while the loaded Saints offense continues to plow through opponents. After a rocky start, the Vikings seem to have rounded into form as we reach the midway point of the season. The Saints just made a big trade. The Vikings just had a star player return to the team after being gone for over a month. There are intriguing matchups all over the field on either side of the ball.
But all anyone wants to talk about is one play.
The Minneapolis Miracle will live on forever in Minnesota sports folklore. The stakes, the sheer improbability, and the full gamut of emotions it put both fan bases through that January evening was unlike anything we had ever experienced. Until the Vikings win a title one day, that play has to be the biggest in franchise history. The Miracle is a permanent “where were you when...” moment for every Vikings fan. (For me, I’ll always remember being in the car, driving away from my friend’s house, because I’m a big pouty baby that couldn’t stomach to watch the end of another crushing playoff loss. Sigh...lesson learned.) The NFC Championship throttling the following week certainly threw a wet blanket on everything, but nothing will ever take away the sheer euphoria we all felt. Watching Stefon Diggs streaking down the sideline on a loop will never get old.
But now, as Pumbaa said in The Lion King, it’s time to put our
behinds in our pants past behind us.
It’s true that most of the pieces remain from the game that book-ended the Saints season with losses at U.S. Bank Stadium and made Sean Payton shut his abnormally tiny mouth. Both teams are leading their respective divisions again; it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they met for a fourth time in two seasons this coming January. However, there are some crucial differences for the Saints and Vikings since they last made history. For starters, Case Keenum looks way different, you guys!
We’ll get to that obvious difference in a bit, but for now let’s take a look at the returning visitors. Last year New Orleans hit a couple home runs in the draft en route to one of the biggest defensive turnarounds in recent memory. The Saints were 32nd in defensive DVOA in 2015, 31st in 2016, then jumped all the way to 8th in 2017. Rookies Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams joined Kenny Vaccaro, Vonn Bell, and breakout second year corner Ken Crawley to inject potency into a secondary that was previously a punchline. Suddenly Brees didn’t have to do it all himself—his 4,334 yards passing was his lowest output since 2005.* After three straight years of some 7-9 bullsh*t, the Saints were balanced enough to come within a miracle of the NFL’s final four.
(*For some perspective: Brees’ lowest passing total in a dozen years would have been the second highest total in Vikings franchise history. That’s how you set the all-time passing yardage record.)
That balance New Orleans enjoyed last season has severely dissipated thanks to the defense taking an unexpected step back in pass defense. We have already seen firsthand in Philadelphia how defensive backs regressing can hurt a defense; it might be even worse in New Orleans. Vaccaro is gone to the Titans. Lattimore, last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, has taken a noticeable step back. Williams is struggling through a bit of a sophomore slump himself since being the Minneapolis Miracle’s primary victim. Crawley has fallen off a cliff; he was absolutely filleted by John Brown last week to the tune of five receptions on five targets for 115 yards. Can you imagine Adam Thielen or Stefon Diggs getting this much space? Unless the newly acquired Eli Apple takes all of Crawley’s snaps, the Vikings should find #20 and pick on him early and often on Sunday.
As a result, the Saints have slipped from 5th in DVOA against the pass last season all the way to 30th this year. They’re 28th in passing yards allowed and ranked 31st in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus. They are also tied for second to last in takeaways with only five on the season. There should be plenty of opportunities for Kirk Cousins to put up big numbers through the air.
However, New Orleans has been surprisingly good against the run this year. They lead the league in rushing yards allowed per game (72.3) and yards per attempt (3.1). Former Jets and Browns linebacker Demario Davis has proven to be an excellent free agent acquisition. He leads the team in tackles and defensive stops this season.
The usual suspect on the defensive line has been at it again too. Cousins and his batted passes are officially a “thing” this year. Guess who leads the league in batted passes since the beginning of the 2017 season? None other than Cameron Jordan. Even if Jordan doesn’t consistently get through Minnesota’s hobbled front line like—he already has 25 total pressures and five sacks this season—he could still wreak havoc on the Vikings passing game.
With a team this porous against the pass and stout against the run, it could be easy to get pass-happy early on. It’s important that John DeFilippo still tries to mix it up and keep the Saints guessing. I don’t know about you, but I think we could do away with a lot of the gimmicky plays to Diggs at or near the line of scrimmage. Teams are really starting to jump on the jet motion runs and quick-hit passes. Take a look at Diggs’ Next Gen route charts, especially over the last few weeks. Where have all the intermediate routes gone?
My theory of why the Vikings have been force-feeding Diggs the ball so much lately: they really miss Dalvin Cook in the short passing game. Latavius Murray has rejuvenated the dormant running game over the past two weeks, but he simply isn’t as effective catching the ball out of the backfield. With Cook likely out through the bye week, perhaps getting players like Mike Boone, Roc Thomas, or C.J. Ham more involved in the short game will allow Diggs to get more space downfield.
As Matthew Coller detailed at 1500 ESPN, the Vikings can ill afford to sputter out to a slow start, especially on third down and in the red zone. Because that New Orleans offense is still humming along just fine. They may not have quite the same balance as last season, but they’re still plenty dangerous. Through the first six games of the season, most of the offense has gone through two players: Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
No really: literally the majority of their offense goes through those two. Thomas and Kamara have combined for 51.9% of the Saints’ yards from scrimmage and 50.9% of their targets.
Thomas has officially reached “you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him” territory. If you try to play off coverage and keep everything in front of you, he can still beat you deep, and Brees can hit him in stride with his trademark pinpoint accuracy.
If you try to press Thomas at the line, he’s excellent at using his hands and a lightning-fast first step to create space. Again, Brees can hit him on quick slants and crossing routes with laser precision.
The Vikings did a pretty decent job of containing Thomas year, even when you account for his second half explosion in the playoffs. He caught only 60% of his targets (by comparison, he’s at an inconceivable 91.4% clip this season) and was held to 31 yards after the catch on twelve receptions. Brees had a 105.6 rating when targeting Thomas last year; that number is up to an astonishing 131.9 this season. But he didn’t break 90 throwing to Thomas in either Vikings game last year. Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes are two of the better tackling corners in the league, and they’ll need to keep that up. (If Rhodes misses the game with his ankle/foot injury? Lord help us all.) Thomas will get his on Sunday; hopefully the Vikings can limit the damage. It’s just too bad that he wasn’t available when the Vikings drafted Laquon Tr...dammit.
Kamara hasn’t been quite as explosive as the 7.7 yards per touch he had last year, due in part to Mark Ingram being suspended for the first four games of the season. He’s still a nightmare coming out of the backfield though. Payton and the Saints are very good at scheming Kamara into space in a variety of ways. Everything from play action and screens from big sets...
...to splitting him out wide in empty sets to run slants and pick routes with Thomas...
...and just about everything in between. Like Thomas, it’s impossible to completely shut Kamara down; there are simply too many ways he can get the ball. The Ravens had some relative success against him last week by preventing him from bouncing runs outside and ensuring a defender was on top of him right at the line of scrimmage. The availability of Anthony Barr will be gigantic, because how he and Eric Kendricks cover Kamara will be crucial to the success of the Vikings defense. Outside of the Rams game where he was schemed into mismatch oblivion, Barr has allowed only five receptions for 13 yards on eleven targets in 187 coverage snaps. Kendricks has taken a noticeable step back in pass coverage this season. Last year, he allowed 414 yards on 623 coverage snaps. In 2018, he has already allowed 356 yards on only 255 coverage snaps. If Barr can’t go and it’s left to Ben Gedeon and the untested Eric Wilson, watch out.
The Saints have added an interesting wrinkle to their offense in the form of former BYU quarterback Taysom Hill. He has only played 63 offensive snaps this year, but New Orleans has used him as an option QB, wide receiver, running back, and kick returner. The Vikings will have to game plan for the gadget plays with Hill, as well as speedy rookie Tre’Quan Smith, who has filled in nicely as a deep threat since Ted Ginn was put on Injured Reserve. The ageless (or maybe age-full?) tight end Benjamin Watson has made some nice plays this year as well. But I’d much rather take my chances with this group and Mark Ingram on Sunday night; the main focus should be on limiting Thomas and Kamara. Getting consistent pressure on Brees is always easier said than done with his snapshot release and solid offensive line. Left guard is still a bit up in the air for New Orleans with Josh LeRibeus going on IR and Andrus Peat working his way back from a concussion. The Saints have one of the better tackle combos in the league this year with Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. Danielle Hunter’s not-dead-yet sack streak is in for a big test this week.
Long story short: the Saints offense is still really freaking good. They are averaging 3.19 points per drive, trailing only the Madden simulation that is the Kansas City Chiefs and ahead of the Rams offense that ran the Vikings off the field a month ago. Drew Brees hasn’t thrown an interception this season. (There, that should jinx it.) The Vikings finally didn’t turn the ball over last week, but as Arif pointed out in his film room piece at The Athletic, Cousins didn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence of that carrying over.
Much has been made about the Vikings continuing their incredible run on third down defense, where they’re holding opponents to a paltry 23.4% conversion rate. What they do against the Saints on first and second down might be more important on Sunday night. The Saints are averaging a whopping 7.26 yards per play on first down and 6.28 on second down this season. That’s how you stay in favorable third down situations, or simply avoid them altogether. The Vikings, who have been a pretty good offense for much of the season, average 6.17 yards on first and 5.48 yards on second. As good as the Saints are on first down on offense, their defense is third worst at yards per play allowed on first down (7.0). The best defense for the Vikings could very well be keeping Brees on the sideline for as long as possible.
While many of the numbers favor the Saints, the Vikings could have a big emotional edge this week. The New Orleans players and coaching staff are going to get asked about the play that ended their season dozens of times before returning to the very place it happened. The nighttime crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium while be raucous. And oh yeah—the Sack Daddy is back in the house. Nobody knows if or how much Everson Griffen will play this week and the rest of the season going forward. As both the team and player have maintained all along, there are things much bigger than football that need to get right first. But it has to be a gigantic boost for the entire organization just to have Griff back in the building. If he does take the field at all Sunday night, the ovation will be deafening. If he actually makes a big play, the damn place might explode.
Unfortunately, emotions and good vibes can only get you so far. As Mark Craig noted in the Star Tribune, the Minneapolis Miracle overshadowed an incredible comeback from the Saints, who have been rolling ever since that fateful second half of the Divisional Round. While New Orleans has some weaknesses, they’re still a very good team. The Vikings have made some promising strides during their three-game win streak, but there are still some big concerns that need to be addressed. Keeping Brees at bay is a much more difficult task than confounding Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold. If I was certain that Rhodes and Barr would be out there at full strength, I’d feel a lot more confident about the Vikings making it three straight over New Orleans. As of this posting, I’m afraid they might have to face one of the best offenses in the league shorthanded. I think we’re in for an entertaining game with a lot of points, but I see the Vikings coming up a bit short unless a few big breaks go their way.
Don’t be too mad about my prediction though. After all, I was pretty certain the Vikings were going to lose last time too.
Saints 30, Vikings 27
And now for the rest of my Week 8 picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
TEXANS over Dolphins
The Brock Osweiler Revenge Game! Somehow Houston is in first place and in line to win their fifth straight game despite the fact that their starting quarterback wasn’t healthy enough to be cleared for air travel last week. God bless the perennial dumpster fire that is the AFC South.
This was supposed to be one of the best London games ever between two of the NFL’s final four from last season. Instead we have two teams scratching their heads with losing records and fighting to save their seasons across the pond. I’m always wary of picking against Sir Blake Bortles (who is inexplicably great in the London games), but I still think the Eagles will pull out the win.
BEARS over Jets
Mitchell Trubisky can look like a top ten quarterback and a bottom three quarterback in the same drive. He needs to get more consistent and Khalil Mack needs to get more healthy if we’re going to take Chicago seriously this season. Luckily for the Bears, they get the Jets and Bills over the next two weeks, so even a mediocre Trubisky should be more than enough to win.
BENGALS over Buccaneers
Sure, Cincinnati are fresh off a bare-bottom spanking on national television. But the Bucs lost Kwon Alexander for the season to dampen their overtime win last week. They’re going to have a tough time stopping the Bengals on the road.
STEELERS over Browns
Cleveland has gone to OT in four of their seven games this year, including the first matchup with Pittsburgh. Bold prediction: I don’t think the Steelers will need extra time to beat a team that hasn’t won on the road for over THREE YEARS. I think they’ll win comfortably.
CHIEFS over Broncos
Another divisional matchup that was close the first time around that could be a blowout in Round 2. In fact, I’m making this my Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 5-2 on the season after the Chargers squeaked by the Titans in London. I have no idea how you stop this Chiefs offense, and I know that Case Keenum and the Broncos aren’t going to win a shootout.
LIONS over Seahawks
Are either of these teams actually...good? I guess we’ll find out more on Sunday.
GIANTS over Redskins
Eli Manning can screw anything up—including playing well enough to get a win over Washington and hurt their chances of the top overall pick despite New York’s fire sale.
PANTHERS over Ravens
I read a stat that the Ravens have gone 674 days since winning a game decided by six points or less. All Carolina does is play in close games.
Colts over RAIDERS
After somehow snagging a first-round pick for Amari Cooper, I can’t decide whether Jon Gruden is crazy like a fox or just plain crazy. What I am certain of: draft picks in 2019 and 2020 don’t help you win many games in 2018.
RAMS over Packers
Imagine you’re Aaron Rodgers looking at Sean McVay’s play calling and then comparing it to...whatever it is that Mike McCarthy is doing. It has to feel looking at a steak from a Michelin 3-star restaurant while you’re eating a day-old McDonald’s quarter pounder.
49ers over CARDINALS
This is the game of the week in every sports bar in Hell.
Patriots over BILLS
Buffalo is on pace to be the worst offense in modern NFL history. Centuries from now, philosophers and scribes will ponder one of life’s greatest mysteries: how the hell the Vikings lost to them by 21 points at home.
Last week: 11-3
Season so far: 66-39-2