Saints vs. Vikings: NFC Divisional Round preview

The Backstory


In a game that feels like it took place eons ago, the Vikings and Saints faced off to open the season in Minnesota. Mike Zimmer's squad pounced on New Orleans and never relented in a 29-19 victory.

The two teams face off at U.S. Bank Stadium as completely different teams after months of battle.

The Week 1 tilt featured Sam Bradford dicing up a Saints secondary that had yet to find its mojo. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook galloped all over the dome, setting a team rookie record. Neither of them has seen the field since Week 5.

The Saints had yet to unleash the full force of its ascendant rookie class, including running back Alvin Kamara, corner Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams.

After a sluggish start to the year -- and jettisoning Adrian Peterson -- the Saints gashed opponents with the best one-two backfield punch in the NFL. Mark Ingram and Kamara combined to lead the NFL in rushing yards (1,852), rushing TDs (20), scrimmage yards (3,094) and scrimmage TDs (25). The overpowering backfield attack aided an improved defense by milking the clock.

While future Hall of Famer Drew Brees took a backseat through the regular season, the quarterback's demise was incredibly exaggerated. Compiling record-setting completion percentage, Brees and No. 1 target Michael Thomas can pilfer opponents seemingly on the snap of a finger. As he did in last week's playoff victory, when the Saints need a Hall of Fame game from Brees, he delivers the goods.

The Vikings, meanwhile, stormed through the NFC North behind skillful play from replacement quarterback Case Keenum, whose heady pocket movement and intelligent marksmanship allowed him to finish behind only Brees in completion percentage this season. Minnesota built its own potent backfield behind Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon.

Zimmer's squad enters Sunday owning the most consistent and dominating defense in the NFL. A group that could rival the Purple People Eaters of old, Minnesota's D can stuff the run (second in rushing YPG allowed), smother the pass (second in passing YPG), stiff arm scoring drives (first in points per game) and quash big plays (fewest rushes of 10-plus yards and receptions of 20-plus yards allowed).

When the Vikings last hosted a playoff game, Minnesota came within a Blair Walsh chip-shot choke from pulling off an upset. Could kicker Kai Forbath succumb to his yips and provide the latest booting nightmare for Vikings fans? Or will the most balanced team in the NFC thwart a Hall of Fame quarterback to continue its run toward a home Super Bowl bid?

Under Pressure


Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: For five seasons, Keenum journeyed from one outfit to another, mostly losing along the way. After grabbing the reins early in 2017 following Sam Bradford's knee injury, Keenum has performed spectacularly. Far from a dink-and-dunk artist, the 29-year-old is fearless maneuvering the pocket and dropping pinpoint bombs. He can find Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs across the formation against zones and man coverage. Playoff inexperience will be Keenum's biggest task to overcome. Brees has 12 career playoff starts. Keenum has zero. The last quarterback without a playoff start to beat a team sporting a QB with 10-plus playoff starts was Tim Tebow over Ben Roethlisberger in the 2011 wild-card round.

Keenum deftly avoided turnovers this season, tossing just seven interceptions to 21 touchdowns. That trend must continue for the playoff neophyte. While Diggs likely will face Lattimore in one-on-one matchups on the outside, Keenum should find Pro Bowl wideout Thielen with regularity out of the slot. The Saints' banged-up defense has given up an average of 434 total yards per game the last two weeks -- to the Buccaneers and Panthers (not exactly two explosive units). Keenum's receivers won't suffer the same case of the drops Carolina wideouts experienced last year. In his first playoff start, Keenum owns the weapons to keep his dream season alive if he can keep the nerves under wraps.

Saints RBs: Was last week's struggle for Ingram and Kamara a blip on the radar or a symptom of a larger issue behind an injured O-line facing ramped-up defensive completion? After becoming the first duo in NFL history to each earn 1,500-plus scrimmage yards, Kamara and Ingram mustered 68 total yards on 21 touches (3.2 yards per touch) in the wild-card win. Against arguably the best defense in the NFL, the Saints running backs must be better Sunday. The Vikings allowed the fewest scrimmage yards to running backs in 2017 and just 4.1 yards per touch to RBs (second fewest in the NFL). It's not a coincidence the Saints' defense struggled the past two games as New Orleans' running game failed to gain traction in each contest. Without the ground game churning the clock and grinding down opponents, a banged-up defense was left exposed.

Kamara will be the key Sunday indoors in Minnesota. The slippery rookie saw just 11 touches for 38 yards in the opener versus the Vikings before he morphed into an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. The two dual-threat running backs Minnesota faced this season that most closely resemble what Kamara brings to the table were Le'Veon Bell and Todd Gurley. Zimmer's defense slowed both dynamic backs to the tune of 2.9 and 3.1 yards per touch, respectively. Behind a banged-up offensive line, Kamara must find holes to slither through and bust out a few of his jaw-dropping runs. When Kamara pops off, it will help chip away at a concrete defense.

Matchup to Watch


Drew Brees vs. Vikings stud D: Seven previous times since 1990 a team with a top-two total defense faced off against a team with a top-two total offense in the playoffs. Six of those seven instances the defensive team came out victorious. Facts aside, bet against Brees at your own peril. The savvy veteran has pillaged top defenses this year. In seven games versus top-10 total defenses, Brees has thrown 10 TDs to three INTs for a 110.1 passer rating and 8.8 yards per attempt. When the competition rises, Brees finds another gear.

The matchup within the matchup is between Saints No. 1 wideout Michael Thomas versus Vikings shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes tailed opposing No. 1 receivers in 10 of 16 games this season, and allowed just one 100-yard receiver when shadowing (Marvin Jones), per Pro Football Focus. If Rhodes slows Thomas, look for Brees to take shots downfield to Ted Ginn Jr. and Kamara out of the backfield. Brees' ability to spread the ball around and get it out quickly will be key for the Saints' aerial attack versus Zimmer's plethora of pressure packages. One key to Brees' passing game will be run after the catch. Behind pinpoint passes that hit WRs in stride, Brees ranks second in the NFL in YAC per reception, per PFF. However, the Vikings give up the fewest YAC per reception allowed. If Thomas, Ginn, and Kamara can shed tacklers, it could bend the game in Brees' advantage

Prediction


The gut says to trust the Hall of Fame quarterback to make plays in crunch time. The mind argues the Vikings are too balanced on both sides of the ball to falter. The home crowd tips the scales by plucking the heartstrings. Behind a raucous crowd, lathered into a fever pitch with every Skol chant and Gjallarhorn blow, Keenum will make enough plays to pull the Vikings away against a Saints defense whose injuries will finally be too much to overcome.

Minnesota Vikings 23, New Orleans Saints 17