The Saints enter the playoffs seemingly riding high, and are early 8 point favorites at home against the Vikings. They secured their division crown a month ago and have won 6 of their last 7 games, including their last three in a row. Their only loss was a 48-46 barn burner against the 49ers.
But the Saints have also suffered some key injuries on defense that could cost them, losing DE Marcus Davenport and DT Sheldon Rankins to season-ending IR recently, while three of their four starting defensive backs were out week 17 against Carolina. Both starting guards have been nursing injuries as well.
As for the Vikings, they seemingly backed into the playoffs, having lost their last two games at home since they clinched a playoff spot and going 2-3 in December. They’ve lost to every playoff team they’ve played, except the Eagles at home. They will play on the road in New Orleans for the first time since 2014, and first playoff game in New Orleans since the NFC Championship ‘‘Bounty-gate” game 10 years ago.
Between that game and the Minneapolis Miracle game two years ago, there is no love lost between these two clubs, or at least their fan bases.
Despite the Vikings being 8 point underdogs, Mike Zimmer has always played Sean Payton tough, winning two of the last three games - although those were all at home.
In terms of statistics that reflect coaching, the Saints and Vikings both rank pretty high.
The Saints have the highest overall team PFF grade, coming in at 93.5, while the Vikings rank 5th overall (3rd in NFC), at 91.9.
The Saints have the 3rd ranked offense in terms of points, 9th in yards, and the 13th ranked defense in points allowed, 11th in yards allowed.
The Vikings have the 8th ranked offense in points, 16th in yards, and the 5th ranked defense in points allowed, 14th in yards allowed.
The Saints have the fewest turnovers in the league this year, with only 8 all season. The Vikings have had 20 turnovers - 13th in the league. On the other hand, the Vikings have forced 31 takeaways - 4th best - while the Saints have forced 23 - 10th best. Overall, the Saints have a +0.9 per game turnover margin (2nd), and the Vikings +0.7 (5th).
In terms of game planning and adjustments, looking at the past three games between the two teams, the Vikings have seemingly had the better initial game plan- starting strong- but the Saints have seemingly done a better job with adjustments during the course of the game - finishing better.
Overall, the two teams are fairly evenly matched, with the Vikings having the slightly better defense this season and the Saints a slightly better offense.
Kirk Cousins has faced the Saints three times in the past, the first in 2015 resulted in a
perfect 158.3 passer rating. But the more relevant games - in 2017 with the Redskins and last season with the Vikings, he also played well. In 2017 he had a 132.6 passer rating, and last season he had a 107.7 passer rating - near his 107.4 passer rating for the 2019 season.
Drew Brees, on the other hand, has been pretty well defensed in his last three outings against the Vikings, in 2017 and 2018. He was held to just a 93.1 passer rating over those three games, including an 84.8 passer rating and only 120 passing yards in the game last year, and an 89.0 passer rating in the Minneapolis Miracle game.
On the season, Drew Brees is #2 in passer rating (116.3) and Kirk Cousins is #4 (107.4). In terms of ANY/A, they’re both ranked high as well - Brees is 3rd at 8.33, and Cousins is 7th at 7.73. In terms of adjusted completion percentage, Brees is #1 at 82.9%, while Cousins is 3rd at 80.2% among QBs with at least 350 attempts. These are the top two quarterbacks in these key metrics in the NFC.
Interestingly, compared to prior seasons, Drew Brees is not throwing the ball deep this year. Only 8.2% of his passes have been 20 or more yards down the field. That’s 29th out of 30 QBs in the league with at least 30 deep passing attempts. Cousins is tied for 8th in percentage of deep passes (13.7%), and has the 3rd highest passer rating when throwing 20+ yards down the field.
For both quarterbacks this season, when they have a passer rating under 100, their team usually loses.
For Brees, he’s had only 3 games this season with a passer rating under 100. Against the Rams, and both games against the Falcons. The Saints lost 2 of the 3, and needed a +3 turnover margin to win the 3rd.
Overall, Brees has slightly better numbers on the season, but Cousins has better numbers against Brees in head-to-head matchups. If both QBs were to maintain their average passer rating over the past three head-to-head matchups, that would bode well for the Vikings.
The Saints have a better offensive line than the Vikings in both run and pass blocking. They
have the 4th best run blocking grade at 73.7, while the Vikings’ OL is 11th at 63.4.
In terms of pass protection, the Saints’ OL is ranked 2nd at 82.9, while the Vikings’ OL is ranked 25th at 65.1. Some of this may be attributable to how quickly each QB gets the ball out. Among QBs with at least 350 attempts, Brees is tied for the least amount of time to deliver the ball in the league at 2.39”. Kirk Cousins is last at 2.83.” That is reflective of both more play-action and deep passing attempts for Cousins.
In terms of sack percentage allowed, the Saints rank 3rd at 4.13%, while the Vikings rank 8th at 5.67%.
The Vikings run the ball about half the time on average, while the Saints are a 60-40
The Vikings average about 25 more rushing yards a game than the Saints (133 vs. 108), and 0.2 yards per rush more (4.5 vs. 4.3) as well.
Both teams are similar in passer rating and rushing yards, as they both tend to win when that number is over 100. The Saints have rushed for under 100 yards only 4 games this season - both Atlanta games, the Rams, and against the Seahawks.
For the Vikings, they’ve rushed for under 100 yards in 5 games - the first Bears game, Chiefs, Broncos, Seahawks, and the last Packers game.
According to PFF, the Vikings are the best tackling team in the NFL - by a wide margin.
Their overall tackling grade for the season is 88.2 - 12 points higher than #2. The Saints are 4th at 73.2.
The Vikings also, believe it or not, have the 3rd best coverage grade in the NFL according to PFF, coming in at 91.3. The Saints rank 17th - 20 points lower.
The Saints have a better pass rush grade for the season than the Vikings - 79.1 to 74.1 - but some of that grade was attributable to Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, who are both now on IR.
The Saints also have a better run defense grade - 84.0 to 75.4 - than the Vikings. Again, some of that attributable to Saints players now on IR.
Overall, the Vikings defense grades higher - 85.8 to 80.3 - and all starters are expected to play, whereas the Saints will missing at least two starters on the defensive line, and perhaps one or more defensive backs as well.
In terms of key situational football, here is how the teams match-up:
The Saints score a TD on 59.7% (11th) of their red zone opportunities. The Vikings allow TDs on 43.8% of them (2nd).
The Vikings score a TD on 60.7% (10th) of their red zone opportunities, while the Saints allow TDs on 59.6% of them (20th).
Overall, the Vikings have the better match-up in the red zone on both offense and defense.
The Saints convert 42.2% (10th) of their third down attempts. The Vikings allow a third down conversion rate of 39.7% (19th).
The Vikings convert 42.8% (9th) of the third down attempts. The Saints allow a third down conversion rate of 34.8% (6th).
Overall, the Saints have the match-up advantage on third down.
The Vikings have made 93% of their field goal attempts, and the Saints 89% - both very good. Neither team has had a punt or kick blocked. Both teams average about 43 net yards per punt attempt, and the Saints have 78% touchbacks on kickoffs, while the Vikings average 75%.
The Saints have averaged 9 more penalty yards a game than the Vikings this season.
Current injuries could have a big impact on this game, and give some perspective on seasonal stats.
For the Saints, they have lost the following starters during the course of the season:
- DE Marcus Davenport - went on IR after week 14, out for season.
- DT Sheldon Rankins - went on IR after week 14, out for season.
- SS Vonn Bell has missed the last 3 games with a knee injury, return questionable.
- CB Eli Apple was out week 17 with an ankle injury, return questionable. Saints acquired Janoris Jenkins as a possible replacement.
- FS Marcus Williams missed week 17 with a groin injury, return questionable.
- LG Andrus Peat missed 6 games with a forearm injury (replaced by Nick Easton), but returned week 17 in rotation with Easton
- RG Larry Warford missed week 16 with a knee injury, but returned week 17
- ILB Kiko Alonzo has also missed three games prior to week 17
For the Vikings, they have been without WR Adam Thielen for most of the 2nd half of the season, and without RB Dalvin Cook for a couple games - more if you count partial missed games. RB Alexander Mattison lately too. LB Eric Kendricks is also nursing a quad injury, but along with Thielen, Cook and Mattison, are expected to play against the Saints.
And, while the Saints had a pretty easy game against the Panthers - who mailed it in - most of the Vikings starters had the week off last week, and should be fresh for the Saints game.
The question for the Vikings is how close to 100% guys like Cook and Thielen are now. Thielen has played the last couple games prior to week 17, but hasn’t been that involved, which raises questions whether he is completely back to normal. For Dalvin Cook, it is unlikely that he is 100% with his shoulder injury, but how much that impacts his game will be a key question.
Overall, next Sunday in New Orleans may be the first time in over two months since the Vikings will have all their starters active. That could have an impact.
For the Saints, most of their key injuries are on the defensive side of the ball, and could have an impact as well - particularly if their injured defensive backs are not able to go.
It may not be that surprising to see that the Saints defense has been trending downward in terms of overall defensive PFF grades the last several weeks (except the Panthers mail-in game last week), due to injuries.
In fact, the Saints have had only 5 sub-63 PFF grade games on defense all year. Four of those have come since week 12. Interestingly it has been the Saints’ coverage grades that have suffered the most, although the injuries have mainly impacted the defensive line. Obviously those two aspects of pass defense are related.
On the offensive side for the Saints, the trend has been steady to improving - particularly the passing game. The run game has also been steady of late, but more toward the low end of the range for the season.
Not including the last Bears game, which was largely backups, the Vikings’ PFF grades on defense have followed kind of a wide-u shape over the course of the season. They started higher, then trended lower, and now have begun to trend higher again. The Packers game had the highest single-game grades for tackling and coverage for the season for the Vikings defense. Coverage has been particularly up-trending for the Vikings in December, and tackling has been steady at a high level. Run defense and pass rush have been a bit erratic, and both have been in averaged in the mid-range for the season.
Offensively, the Vikings have trended in more of an upside down wide-u shape over the course of the season. Starting around mid-range, trending higher in the middle weeks, then lower after Thielen’s loss back into the mid-range. The peak was between weeks 5 and 8. It’s unclear if the return of both Cook and Thielen - and Mattison - will help the Vikings offense improve, but certainly it would seem a prerequisite.
For the Vikings, I would be surprised if they didn’t return to the traditional Kubiak offense -
heavy play-action, under-center, outside zone runs, QB boots, shots down the field. I don’t see a depleted Saints defense having enough to counter all that effectively. It’s the same style of offense that the 49ers ran against the Saints pre-injury-depleted defense, in New Orleans, week 14, and that was good for 48 points. Why wouldn’t you?
Defensively, I would imagine the Vikings would employ a similar game plan as they did a couple weeks ago against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers - largely playing coverage with pressure on longer down-and-distance situations. I would expect Michael Thomas to be doubled with a rotation of Rhodes/Hughes and maybe even Hill, with Anthony Harris over the top. Harrison Smith covering Jared Cook, and Eric Kendricks on Alvin Kamara. The Vikings have the personnel to cover the Saints’ weapons as well as any team, but they’ll need Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter to keep the pressure on Brees for maximum effectiveness. The Saints have a couple of very good tackles, so that won’t be easy. Ryan Ramczyk vs. Danielle Hunter is a clash of the titans. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some twists to put more pressure on the guards in pass protection too.
For the Saints offensively, I wouldn’t be surprised if they ran a similar offense as the Packers did week 16 - a more balanced attack, efficient passing, trying to wear down the Vikings defense, with perhaps more tempo - as is usual for them.
Defensively, I expect Marshon Lattimore - their best corner- to shadow Stefon Diggs the whole game. Diggs will still have opportunities - Lattimore isn’t as good as he was in 2017. But that should give Adam Thielen opportunities, if he’s able to take advantage of them, and Bisi Johnson too. I would also expect the Vikings’ tight-ends to have opportunities against the Saints’ LBs and SS as well.
Up-front, I wouldn’t expect a lot of blitzing from the Saints. Cousins, like Brees, handles blitzes very well. The Saints will hope Cam Jordan can keep Cousins under pressure, perhaps with a little help.
Teams don’t run on the Saints much at all - 2nd fewest rushing attempts against in the league this season - but they’re average in yards per rush allowed. With the losses along with defensive front, I expect the Vikings should be able to run with some success. Hopefully that will lead to easier 3rd down conversions, longer drives, and more points. Half the Saints defensive front is more suspect against the run, and a couple of their linebackers too. I’m sure the Saints will have a plan for when Dalvin Cook is on the field, but compared to other defenses the Vikings have faced, not sure they’ll be as effective in stopping the run.
This is a big game for both teams, as all playoff games are, but perhaps even more so as
rumors have emerged that should the Vikings lose, it could be the end of the Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota. Clearly owner Zygi Wilf had set pretty high expectations for this Vikings team, expectations that can only be fulfilled with a deep playoff run. Going one-and-done in the playoffs, especially after going 2-4 in the division, isn’t likely to result in a contract extension at this stage. Particularly after making it to the NFC championship, acquiring a better QB, and then failing to make the playoffs last season.
As for the Saints, going one-and-done after a 13-3 record, and two last-second, gut-punch season-ending losses the past two years, could prove to be too devastating to recover from next season. Particularly if Drew Brees calls it quits.
Failing to secure a first-round bye was disappointing to the Saints - after going 13-3 - but it remains to be seen how it effects morale. Clearly they would have liked the extra week to get players back from injury, and now facing what has been a tough match-up in the past could lead to a shaky performance against one of the best teams they’ve faced all season.
To be honest, the Saints have only played one good team since September - two if you count the Titans, and lost to the 49ers at home, while rallying from down 14-0 to beat the Titans on the road. So, to face the #5 defense in points allowed, along with the #8 offense in points scored, will be a much tougher opponent than they’ve faced for most of the last three months, and frankly a tough match-up for them the past few head-to-head contests.
The only time the Saints beat the Vikings in the last three match-ups, with similar teams, last season, the Vikings were without starting RB Dalvin Cook, starting CB Xavier Rhodes, starting LB Anthony Barr, starting LT Riley Reiff, and starting LG Tom Compton.
This season, in terms of rankings, the Saints are very similar on both sides of the ball in both points and yards. The Vikings are similar on defense, but much better offensively - 8th vs. 19th last season in points scored. And in this match-up it will be the Saints that are depleted in terms of injured starters - not the Vikings.
On the other hand, the Vikings will need their best road performance of the season to get past the Saints. And while the defense has generally been playing well of late, particularly in generating takeaways, the offense hasn’t put together a good, full game on it’s own in quite a while.
The Vikings offense also hasn’t shown much the past few weeks - perhaps by design with the playoffs in mind. But being able to turn on the switch, on the road, in the playoffs, is no easy task.
In some ways, this game represents a reversal of fortune of the 2017 match-up. That year, the Vikings coasted the last few weeks to a 13-3 record, while the Saints struggled down the stretch, going 3-3 their last six games and finishing 11-5. They managed to beat the Panthers at home before losing to the Vikings on the Minneapolis Miracle play.
The Saints finished that year strong offensively, but were losing steam defensively - similar to this year.
So, who wins this game?
I wouldn’t lay 8 points on the Saints. No way.
I like the Vikings in an upset.
The Vikings are early 8 point underdogs on the road against New Orleans. Will they...
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