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Vikings come up Big, but it wasn’t Easy

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Wild Card Round - Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The 6th seeded Vikings held on, then came up big in overtime to beat the 13-3, 3rd seeded Saints 26-20 in New Orleans. It was the 2nd time in three seasons that the Vikings sent the Saints home in the playoffs.

The Vikings were heavy, 8 point underdogs, with many pundits predicting the Saints would win easily and by double digits.

They were wrong.

But the Vikings had to overcome an early turnover, and a late comeback by the Saints, before cashing in on their first drive in overtime for a game winning touchdown.

Kirk Cousins, by virtue of big time throws to Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph in overtime, silenced the criticism of him coming up small in big games. But as Cousins and Zimmer said after the game, it was a good team win, and so it was.

Dalvin Cook carried the Vikings in the first half, and the Vikings defense did most of the game too, before Cousins came through in the clutch to deliver the overtime victory.

On the Saints side, had they won the game, it would’ve been Taysom Hill who would’ve been the MVP, not Drew Brees or Michael Thomas. Hill made the deep bomb setting up the first Saints TD (a throw Brees can’t make very well anymore), and caught the Saints other TD.

But the Saints lost, and it was Brees who came up small, not Cousins. Brees had two key turnovers - a weak thrown interception over the middle caught by Anthony Harris which the Vikings converted into a touchdown, and a late fumble in Vikings territory that thwarted a promising Saints drive. The Saints had only 8 turnovers the entire regular season, but the two against the Vikings went a long way toward turning 13-3 into one-and-done.

It Was A Grind

After overcoming early drive-killing plays by Adam Thielen - fumble, penalty, dropped pass - the Vikings offense was able to drive largely on the ground, with Dalvin Cook looking like the Dalvin Cook of a couple months ago. He finished with just under 100 yards rushing, with another 36 receiving. That led to ten second-quarter points, which along with a missed Will Lutz field goal, gave the Vikings a 13-10 halftime lead.

That, along with a Vikings defense that dominated the Saints vaunted offense much of the game, allowed the Vikings to hold the ball and dominate time of possession in the first half.

The Vikings defense dominated the Saints offense by taking advantage of weakness on the Saints’ interior OL, Andrus Peat in particular, to get pressure and sacks on Brees. And for the 3rd time in the last 3 match-ups, the Vikings defense held Brees to a sub-100 passer rating. Brees finished with a passer rating of 90.4, pretty close to his average against the Vikings going back to 2017.

The Vikings also entered the game without any slot corners, as MacKensie Alexander and Mike Hughes were ruled out, somewhat surprisingly, late in the week.

The Vikings went with Andrew Sendejo in the slot for the most part, rather than Jayron Kearse as (at least I) expected. In any case, the Vikings played coverage most of the game, and apart from the Taysom Hill bomb to Deonte Harris, were successful in limiting the Saints passing attack and explosive plays. Zimmer employed a mix of defensive backs on Michael Thomas, who had 7 catches for 70 yards, but undoubtedly didn’t play as big a role as the Saints wanted him to.

The only player the Vikings had trouble defending was Taysom Hill, which was unfortunate because everything he did was on film for the Vikings to plan for. Nevertheless, that wasn’t enough for the Saints offense, which struggled on third down and was only 50% in the red zone.

From a game planning and play calling standpoint, the Vikings coaching staff put together an excellent game plan on both sides of the ball to start the game. If not for the Thielen (in the first half) the Vikings may have built a much bigger lead going into halftime. The problem in the second half was that Kevin Stefanski went conservative, running the ball (and presumably hoping to wear down the Saints defense into submission), but it didn’t work. The Saints made some adjustments to focus more on stopping the run, and Stefanski’s play-calls were obvious at times, leading to losses near the goal line and another drive-killing one by Dalvin Cook that was almost a fumble returned for a TD.

That led to a couple 3-and-outs and a couple 6-and-outs in the second half that allowed the Saints to get back into the game and eventually tie it.

But Stefanski decided to call some pass plays after the Vikings won the toss in overtime, and Kirk Cousins delivered - going 5/6 in overtime including the longest play of the game for the Vikings - a 43 yard bomb to Adam Thielen. Cousins was also clutch on third down - after Stefanski repeated his obvious outside run call to Cook. The Vikings had called another play, but when the Saints did an all-out (zero) blitz, Cousins altered the play by throwing a fade route to Rudolph which won the game.

It was a big upset victory for the Vikings, and one they required everything they had for 60 minutes plus overtime.

Plenty of lessons to be taken from this game, both good and bad. But it was encouraging to see the Vikings start strong (apart from Thielen) on offense and defense to begin the game, and come up clutch (Thielen too) in overtime to win it.

Defense and Ground Game Win Championships

Both the AFC and NFC sixth seeds won on the road, defeating the 13-3 Saints and the 12-4, defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. They both did it with the ground game and defense.

For the Vikings, they had 136 rushing yards, while holding the Saints to under 100, and also holding the Saints to only a 36% conversion rate on 3rd down and 50% in the red zone.

The Vikings went 56% and 75% in those situations respectively, largely by being more effective in the run game.

It may be somewhat surprising in a passing league that most of the remaining playoff teams are top 10 in rushing yards, and top 10 in defense.

The Vikings ranked 6th in rushing yards in the regular season, and 5th in points allowed on defense - a very competitive combo for the postseason.

San Francisco Up Next

The Vikings don’t have much time to savor this victory, as they have the early game next Saturday against the 13-3, #1 seeded 49ers.

This is going to be a tougher match-up in some respects than the Saints, as the 49ers defensive line will be a tougher test for the Vikings offensive line, among other things.

The Vikings, however, are relatively healthy (and hopefully get Alexander back against the 49ers), their running game is back, and the defense is playing their best football of the season.

But that is a subject for another write-up.

For now, let’s take a moment to relax after a tense, but ultimately fulfilling upset overtime victory for the Vikings.

It was a big win, and a win that could create some momentum into next Saturday.

Official NFL Game Summary

Here is the official NFL game summary.

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