When the New Orleans Saints face the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional round of the playoffs Sunday, keep these things in mind...
Get it going
The Saints already proved last week they can move the ball and win games when there is nothing open on the ground. But the task will be a lot easier if the Saints prove they can run the ball. That would help open things up in the passing game and allow New Orleans to control the pace of the game.
Red zone work
New Orleans often got down in the red zone against Minnesota in Week 1. The problem is that five trips only resulted in one touchdown. That isn’t a winning formula, and while it seems obvious, seven points will go a lot further than three in the rematch. Points will be at a premium against this defense.
The big stage
As we saw last week, there comes a point in the playoffs when the quarterbacks matter. Case Keenum has more than proven that he can lead an offense, but he’s also never experienced life as a starter during a playoff game. Will he be ready to rise to the occasion? The answer could decide this game.
Minnesota is already one of the louder venues in the league. The decibel readers should be working overtime this week as the local fans try to cheer their team one step closer to playing in a home Super Bowl. New Orleans is going to have to find a way to deal with the sound against a defense that likes to disguise.
It's not quite Saints vs. Falcons, as far as rivalries go.
When the Saints pass
This is only a slight advantage. There’s a scenario where Drew Brees solves this defense.
When the Saints run
Whether it’s serving as decoys or producing yards, the New Orleans running backs will impact the game.
When the Vikings pass
This isn’t Week 1. New Orleans will have a better plan this week against the Vikings.
When the Vikings run
New Orleans will have to find a way to keep the Minnesota backs corralled.
Minnesota ranks in the top 10 in return average in both punts and kicks.
Marshon Lattimore vs. Adam Thielen
There are no guarantees that Lattimore matches up with Thielen, but it would make a lot of sense. The wide receiver has emerged as the biggest threat in Minnesota’s offense. Having Lattimore shadow him, even into the slot, would make a lot of sense for this defense.
Michael Thomas vs. Xavier Rhodes
Rhodes has made his name following the best receivers in the NFL all over the field. For whatever reason, he didn’t pair up with Thomas in Week 1, but it seems likely he will in this meeting. Thomas managed to get two catches on Rhodes during the nine steps they paired up the first time.
When the Saints play the Vikings on Sunday afternoon, Jacob Guth will be changing, constantly.
The guard has played 60 percent of the snaps this season, including a stint during the Week 1 game, but this might be his biggest test of the season. Kelemete will be filling in for Andrus Peat at guard against a team that likes to do things to create pressure on interior offensive lines.
The shifty, twitchy receiver created all kinds of problems for the Saints during the first meeting. New Orleans will need to find a way to prevent him from getting open for explosive plays. That task could fall on Ken Crawley if Lattimore pairs up with Adam Thielen.
The Saints are relatively healthy — at least regarding the players still standing.
But the team will be dealing with a significant injury this week with wide receiver Brandon Coleman being ruled out because of a neck injury.
On its face, losing a player who caught 23 passes for 364 yards during the regular season doesn’t seem like a big blow. New Orleans can find someone to step in and make a catch or two for 22 yards without issue. Willie Snead, Austin Carr, and Tommylee Lewis are all waiting in the wings, looking to make an impact.
The bigger impact will likely come in the running game, where Coleman has been a standout blocker, and a key figure in many of the big runs the team has broken this season. Snead can fill in some of those snaps, but those two players are often on the field together in certain packages, so the Saints will have to find someone to step up.
And in the passing game, this could have been a game where Coleman saw more opportunities than usual. The Vikings will likely look to take away the running game, much like the Carolina Panthers last week, and will take measures to try to stop Alvin Kamara from having a significant impact in the passing game. With Xavier Rhodes likely pairing up with Michael Thomas, that will some targets for other players.
It’s probably not a surprise that tight end Coby Fleener was able to catch five passes for 54 yards in the opener, many of which came over the middle out of three-receiver sets. New Orleans might have the same opportunities to attack the middle of the field. That could create increased opportunities for someone else to claim. It will help if the offense gets another big performance from tight end Josh Hill.
This isn’t the absence that will break New Orleans’ back. It’s just an inconvenience at an important time. The Saints have the personnel to overcome the loss. But it will now have to turn to someone who doesn’t have demonstrated chemistry with Brees in game situations this season. Ideally, that isn’t something you want to be figuring out on the fly during a playoff game.
For the better part of three seasons, as the New Orleans Saints stumbled to 7-9 and rumors swirled about the potential departure of Sean Payto…
WR Brandon Coleman (neck)
QB Taysom Hill (illness)
LB Michael Mauti (illness)
Losing Coleman is a big hit for the offense. The numbers might not show it, but he plays a key role in both the passing and running games. If Hill and Mauti are unable to play, New Orleans will have some holes to fill on a special teams unit that has just started to figure things out.
CB Terence Newman (foot)
Instead of your garden variety linear progression, this New Orleans Saints' season has come round in a giant circle, back where it all began.
Forget about the first game. It was ugly and disorganized and poorly played. But that was a long time ago, and this Saints team is a lot different. New Orleans now has an identity on both offense and defense, something that wasn’t true in Week 1.
Saints 24, Vikings 21
Joel A. Erickson
New Orleans has the kind of explosive offense that can create some big plays even against a terrific Minnesota defense, and the depleted Saints defense forces a couple of turnovers and makes stops in the red zone to reach the NFC Championship Game.
Saints 21, Vikings 19
It's been 18 weeks since these two teams last played. This isn't the same Vikings team, and it definitely isn't the same Saints team. Saints prevail this time and city gets to "Hit the Sean Payton" dance for another week.
Saints 21, Vikings 20
The defensive numbers, talent and home-field advantage say go with the Vikings. I guess I'm not ready to give up on the notion that this is a special season for the Saints. Plus, I think that opportunistic Saints defense will force Case Keenum into a critical mistake or two.
Saints 20, Vikings 17
Know the Foe
Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
Coach: Mike Zimmer (39-25; 0-1 in playoffs)
Key players: DE Everson Griffen, CB Xavier Rhodes, SS Harrison Smith, FS Andrew Sendejo, WR Adam Thielen, WR Stephon Diggs, RB Jerick McKinnon
Last game: Beat the Chicago Bears, 23-10
The buzz: The Vikings were one of the best teams during the regular season, earning a first-round bye despite being led by journeyman quarterback Case Keenum, who will be making his first playoff this start against the New Orleans Saints. Though he’s bounced around throughout his career, Keenum might have proven himself by completing 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,547 yards with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions during the regular season. He’s helped by a pair of receivers in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who have emerged as dangerous weapons in their own rights. The backbone of this team, however, is the defense, which was the NFL’s best during the regular season. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes and strong safety Harrison Smith are the more heralded members of the group, but free safety Andrew Sendejo and cornerback Trae Waynes also demand respect. Saints coach Sean Payton said all four players should be Pro Bowlers this week. Up front, the Vikings have a strong front seven that likes to disguise its blitzes and make this difficult on quarterbacks. The star of that group is defensive end Everson Griffen who finished the season with 13 sacks.