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Vikings at Saints Wild Card Preview: The New Orleans Normalcy?

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We all remember the last time these two teams met in the playoffs. Will the red-hot (and heavily favored) Saints get their Minneapolis Miracle revenge on Sunday?

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints
Stopping Drew Brees and Michael Thomas is going to be an extremely difficult task for the Vikings.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Keenum, steps into it, paaass is CAUGHT! DIGGS! SIDELINE! TOUCHDOWN! UNBELIEVABLE! VIKINGS WIN IT!

Joe Buck’s iconic call of that fateful game two years ago will forever be affixed to our fondest memories as Vikings fans. Until the team actually qualifies for a Super Bowl in my lifetime, the Minneapolis Miracle is going to be tough to beat when it comes to the pure, unadulterated joy it caused.

What happened during those ten final glorious seconds two years ago can never be taken away. Unfortunately, we learned the hard way how little all those warm and fuzzy feelings meant going forward. That magical play didn’t make a lick of difference in Philadelphia the following week. And no matter how many times we see the replay this week or how often Buck and Troy Aikman bring it up during the broadcast, it won’t have any tangible effect on the outcome this Sunday either. While many of the key players remain, the Vikings and Saints teams that will take the field are very different than what we saw on January 14, 2018.

If you’re a Vikings fan, many of those differences aren’t in your favor. Arif Hasan of The Athletic wrote about how New Orleans might be the worst possible matchup for Minnesota of all teams in the NFC playoff field. The Saints are a tough opponent because they aren’t your typical Wild Card weekend team. They finished first in overall team grade from Pro Football Focus and were the top NFC team (fourth overall) in DVOA. The Saints are only the third 13-3 team in NFL history to play on the opening weekend of the playoffs. The 1999 Titans had a 13-3 record but didn’t even win the AFC Central, so they had to host a Wild Card game en route to a Super Bowl berth. The other 13-3 Wild Card team: the 2011 Saints. That team lost out on the first round byes to Green Bay and San Francisco and then destroyed a 10-6 NFC North team in the Wild Card round.

Uh oh. That kind of sounds familiar. If you’re looking for a more favorable historic example, you’re in luck! The 1987 Vikings beat the 3-loss Saints and 13-win 49ers on the road en route to the NFC Championship Game. If the Vikings win on Sunday, they’ll advance to San Francisco. What will they need to do to relive that timeline and avoid a one-and-done postseason on the first weekend of the new decade?

For starters, they’re going to want to try and prove the Twitter handle of Michael Thomas wrong. Throughout the 2019 season, “can’t guard Mike” was the perfect nom de plume: Thomas is coming off one of the best wide receiver seasons ever. He set a new NFL single-season record for receptions and led the league in receiving yards. He caught over 80% of his targets for the second straight season, which is absolutely ridiculous for anyone, especially such a high-volume wide receiver. If Thomas keeps this up, I’m going to be forced to start seriously considering whether drafting Laquon Treadwell 24 picks ahead of him may have been a mistake.

Sarcastic jokes aside, Thomas is truly something to behold when watching his film. His precision and consistency are unparalleled. There are no wasted motions; he can beat defensive backs to any spot on the field using precision and leverage. Most of the damage Thomas does comes from 15 yards and in—his average of 8.1 air yards per target is about half that of teammate and deep threat Ted Ginn—but there isn’t a route he doesn’t run well.

In the past, the Vikings have defended Thomas relatively well. He has averaged “only” 70.3 yards on under six catches per game in three career contests against Minnesota, although he did have two scores in the playoff game. But that was when the Vikings secondary was in much better shape. It looks like Mackensie Alexander is at risk of missing the game. If that’s the case, Xavier Rhodes will likely be on the outside the entire game instead of the cornerback rotation the Vikings had been employing to some success at the end of the regular season. When Thomas moves inside to the slot, which he has done on 25% of his offensive snaps this season, Mike Hughes is going to have one of the toughest tests of his young career.

UPDATE 12:45 PM FRIDAY: Alexander is indeed missing the game. But it turns out that Hughes is not going to have one of the toughest tests of his career, because he’s going on Injured Reserve instead. Yikes. But hey, at least Marcus Sherels is back...

In last week’s preview, I joked that Thomas caught four passes for 75 yards on Rhodes just from me thinking about this potential matchup. Now that it’s actually here, I’m worried that I may have underestimated.

When you combine Thomas’ ability to get open with Drew Brees’ accuracy, it’s almost unfair. Brees turns 41 right after the divisional round, but he’s still one of the best signal callers in the league. Despite missing nearly six full games with an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand early in the year, he still tied for fifth in touchdown passes with 27, which is one more than Kirk Cousins had. Brees finished the season third in adjusted net yards per attempt and QBR. That legendary accuracy of his earned him another completion percentage title and the second highest completion percentage above expectation. It feels like we can’t go three games without the Saints stopping the game and giving Brees a game ball for breaking yet another record.

If all the Vikings had to worry about was the lethal Brees-to-Thomas connection, Mike Zimmer could probably cook something up to take it away. Of course, there are plenty of other weapons to worry about in the New Orleans offense. Alvin Kamara was a disappointment this year if you had him in fantasy, mostly because his yards per touch (5.3) and touchdowns (6) were way down in his first year without Mark Ingram as a backfield battery mate. But he still racked up over 1,300 yards from scrimmage despite missing a couple games due to injury. Ginn and Tre’Quan Smith won’t beat you consistently, but they’re still threats to make big plays when defenses pay too much attention to Thomas underneath. Tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill have combined for 68 receptions, 931 yards, and twelve touchdowns. “Quarterback” Taysom Hill does a little bit of everything in Sean Payton’s offense. (Except pass—he has only six attempts this year.) Our old pal Latavius Murray even has almost 900 scrimmage yards; one could argue that he has been a more consistent runner than Kamara this year.

Since Brees returned in Week 8, the Saints have scored at least 31 points in every game except two: both contests against the Atlanta Falcons. Their 26-9 home loss to Atlanta back in Week 10 remains one of the more surprising results of the season. Outside of the Week 2 game where he was injured just nine snaps into the game, the two games against Atlanta were the only two times that Brees failed to post a quarterback rating of 100 or better this year. One of the main reasons why New Orleans struggled against Atlanta this year was the Falcons getting quick pressure up the middle. They sacked Brees six times in their upset victory, including 2.5 by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Brees has the second shortest time to throw in the NFL thanks to his lightning-fast release and precision timing on quick passes. Much like Minnesota’s offense, New Orleans has struggled when interior linemen can get home quickly.

Getting interior pressure will be easier said than done for the Vikings on Sunday. New Orleans boasts one of the best pass blocking lines in all of football. Their rookie center, Erik McCoy, has had a much better debut than Garrett Bradbury. McCoy was selected 30 picks after Bradbury in the 2019 NFL Draft, but he was named to the Pro Football Focus All-Rookie Team, garnering the fourth highest grade among all centers. The only possible weak point on the Saints line might be left guard Andrus Peat, who just returned from injury last week and sent former Viking Nick Easton to the bench. But it isn’t like the Vikings have a Grady Jarrett of their own. Linval Joseph is still a very good nose tackle, but rushing the passer has never been his calling card. Shamar Stephen has been virtually invisible in that respect, notching a pressure on only 1.9% of his pass rushing snaps according to PFF. Jaleel Johnson hasn’t fared much better, Hercules Mata’afa has been a healthy scratch most weeks, and Armon Watts just went on Injured Reserve.

Getting consistent pressure on the edge certainly wouldn’t hurt, but that might be tough for the Vikings too. Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are one of the best tackle duos in the NFL. You have to like Danielle Hunter’s chances to cause some trouble regardless of who he’s facing, but Everson Griffen was pretty quiet down the stretch in the regular season. Griff averaged 5.6 pressures per game over the first ten games and only 2.0 in the last five. The Vikings desperately need their veteran leader to find his groove again in New Orleans.

Perhaps the Vikings could manufacture more interior pressure by moving Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly inside more often, even when it isn’t an obvious passing down. Odenigbo has played inside on roughly a third of his defensive snaps and has made a big impact as part of the defensive line rotation. Playing him inside more could be a disadvantage in the run game, but why not make the Saints try and beat you with the run? It certainly appears to be the lesser of two evils. I’d rather have Kamara running between the tackles than running routes, especially if Eric Kendricks is limited or can’t go on Sunday.

Actually, on second thought, if Kendricks is limited or can’t go on Sunday, I don’t know if there’s a way that the Vikings can get enough stops against the Saints offense. He means too much to the defense.

Maybe they could win the turnover battle? After all, the Vikings had 31 takeaways this season and forced multiple turnovers in half their games. That’s really good! But the Saints had only eight turnovers this season and never turned the ball over multiple times in a game. That’s ridiculously good.

To paraphrase Dan Patrick back in his SportsCenter days, you can’t stop the Saints offense, you can only hope to contain them. The Vikings are going to have to score quite a few points to have any hope of the upset on Sunday. In order to do that, they must get back to doing what has worked best for them this season. Namely, lots of play action, bootlegs, and Dalvin Cook running the ball.

Daniel House of Vikings Corner had a nice quick breakdown of all the success Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers had with some of the same basic tenets of the Vikings offense.

Having Cook back and healthy can only help both play action and the run game. However, it won’t be quite as simple as “playing the hits” on Sunday. Derrik Klassen of Football Outsiders had an excellent film room breakdown of how the Saints can defend the “Post/Over” or “Yankee” route combination. The Packers had success defending it in Week 16, including Kevin King’s interception. Klassen illustrated how the Vikings will need to tweak one of their favorite play action concepts if they hope to have success throwing deep on Sunday.

Throwing deep will be easier for the Vikings if the Saints secondary isn’t at full strength. Starting safeties Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams are banged up. Bell hasn’t played since Week 14 and Williams sat out last week. Eli Apple hasn’t practiced yet this week, which means newcomer Janoris Jenkins may have a big role in only his third game with the Saints. As Sam Ekstrom of Zone Coverage wrote about on Tuesday, New Orleans doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses, but their pass defense might be one area to exploit.

As we already touched on, the best way to derail the Vikings offense is with pressure, especially up the middle. The Vikings caught a break in that area as well. The Vikings will have to be mindful of New Orleans’ do-everything dynamic linebacker Demario Davis; the Saints’ version of Kendricks has been very effective when rushing the passer. But Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport are both out for the year, which means Cameron Jordan is the lone formidable pass rush threat on the Saints. Of course, that’s a really freaking big threat. Jordan had 15.5 sacks and finished very close to Hunter in both total pressures and pass rush productivity. He’s going to win a lot of 1-on-1 battles, so the Vikings will have to account for him and make sure there’s help on his side.

Another way to combat Jordan’s pass rush would be screen passes, especially to the space he just vacated by blowing past the tackle. Robert Quinn led the entire league in pass rush win rate but had a relatively quiet game against the Vikings in Week 10 thanks to passes like this. If the Vikings can keep Jordan honest and Cousins upright, there should be some opportunities to hit Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen for big plays.

More importantly, the Vikings need those opportunities with their offense at full capacity. The health of Cook and Thielen are paramount to have a realistic chance at getting a win. The two stars have been on the field together for roughly 40 snaps since Week 6. Cook sat out the final two games of the regular season and Thielen has looked like a shadow of himself since returning from his hamstring injury. Diggs has been great this year, especially down the field, but he can’t do it by himself. If Cook or Thielen are compromised, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings being able to outscore the high-powered Saints.

If things go poorly in New Orleans, there could be big changes on the horizon for the Vikings. Charles Robinson of Yahoo and others have hinted that the Vikings might want to retain Kevin Stefanski over Zimmer depending on Sunday’s outcome. Stefanski is already getting a lot of head coaching buzz for a couple of the vacant positions. There’s also a notion floating around that the Cowboys might be interested in Zimmer to replace Jason Garrett, whether it’s via trade or by signing him after the Vikings part ways with him. I stated last week that I would like to keep the group intact for one last run in 2020 no matter how these playoffs end, but that sounds less likely with each rumor.

Those that have been paying attention to the coverage surrounding this game all week know that most pundits anticipate things going poorly for the purple. Virtually nobody expects the Vikings to win. They’re easily the biggest underdogs on the slate of games this weekend. But Kyle Brandt of Good Morning Football made a great point about them earlier this week. So you want everyone to shut up about how Cousins and Zimmer can’t win big games? You want Jordan to stop talking shit about your team every time he has a media appearance? You want critics and fans to stop harping on how the Vikings always come up short? You want to prove that the championship window for this group of players and coaches isn’t about to slam shut? You want the NFL to actually include your team the next time they release a playoff hype video? There’s exactly one way to change that, and it starts with beating the Saints on Sunday.

So air it out. Don’t let Taysom Hill be the only player involved in gadget plays—call some of your own. Go for it on fourth down. Play loose. Pound the rock with Cook to keep Brees and Thomas off the field. Who knows? Maybe you can shock the world again. Maybe the 2019 Vikings can start 2020 by finally playing to their full potential. Maybe Thomas’ hand injury will make him mortal. Maybe the Skol Chant can serenade dejected home fans out of the Superdome around 3:30 on Sunday.

But I can’t bring myself to actually predict that happening. The Vikings will have to play a nearly flawless game to beat what I consider to be the best team in the NFC. They haven’t shown that they are capable of putting together the complete game on both sides of the ball that would be necessary to knock off the Saints on the road. I pray I’m wrong and we get at least one more week of Vikings football, but I don’t see it happening. New Orleans simply has too much firepower and I don’t see Minnesota keeping it close enough to provide us with another last-second miracle.

That said, I’m still open to another round of divine intervention. I don’t want this to be the last preview article of the season. Here’s to holding out hope until the clock hits all zeros Sunday.

(Just don’t have the clock hit all zeros with Bridgewater taking honorary victory formation snaps. My heart couldn’t handle that.)

Prediction

Saints 34, Vikings 24


And now for the rest of my Wild Card picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

TEXANS over Bills

This was the toughest pick of the weekend for me. Houston can look amazing on certain days and terrible on others. I don’t trust the Bills offense, but their defense is legit. J.J. Watt is back, but Will Fuller’s health might actually be more important for Houston. I think Deshaun Watson & company have a higher ceiling when they’re playing at their best, so I’ll take the Texans in a tight one at home.

PATRIOTS over Titans

That Patriots dynasty looks like it’s on life support. Tom Brady looks like he’s proving why Father Time remains undefeated. Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and the Tennessee offense look dynamic and dangerous. Bill Belichick has historically struggled against his coaching disciples, and Mike Vrabel has his team playing well. All the ingredients for the upset are there.

But if you think I’m going to pick against the Pats at home in the playoffs before they’re completely dead and buried, you have another thing coming.

Seahawks over EAGLES

Seattle kept a much healthier Eagles team in check six weeks ago in Philly. I’ll pick them to do it again now that Carson Wentz is playing with a roster of skill players that reads like a video game that didn’t clear naming rights with the NFLPA.

Of course, this is the Seahawks, so this game will likely involve an ending that’s crazier than anything I could ever comprehend. But I’m still taking Seattle.

Last week: 11-5
Regular season: 162-93-1