Instead of your garden variety linear progression, this New Orleans Saints' season has come round in a giant circle, back where it all began.
Way back in balmy September, the Saints opened with a 29-19 Monday night loss against the Minnesota Vikings. New Orleans looked completely outclassed on the road against a team that figured to be one of the top contenders in the National Football Conference. It was like the Vikings had paddled across the Atlantic to kick the Acadians from Nova Scotia to the French Quarter (before I get any angry emails from history buffs, it was the English who kicked out the Acadians).
The Saints returned home six days later and got a similar stiff arm from the New England Patriots in a 36-20 loss. It was a depressingly familiar 0-2 start for New Orleans, the Saints' fourth in as many seasons. At the time, the NFL playoffs might as well have been on the moon for the Saints’ chances of reaching them.
A funny thing happened though on New Orleans' way to another disappointing crater of a season. The Saints caught fire and won eight straight, paving the way to an 11-5 final record, an NFC South Division championship and a 31-26 wild-card round victory over the Panthers last week in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It’s been a stirring ride worthy of the late John Facenda and the NFL Films orchestra providing the soundtrack.
Now, the Saints find themselves back in Minneapolis on an Arctic Sunday afternoon in the NFC divisional round. The goals couldn’t be more defined or profound, football-wise or geography-wise. The Saints are trying not only to win today and reach the third NFC championship game in franchise history, but to be right back in U.S. Bank Stadium three weeks from now for the big Roman numeral: Super Bowl LII.
Again, back in September the last time these two teams met, such lofty aspirations seemed like a foolish wish. But over the course of a long and arduous NFL season, the Saints stirred up a winning gumbo.
First, they found a potent running game with Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara to form a foundation under the still strong right arm of quarterback Drew Brees. They’ve also managed to adequately fill a string of potentially crushing injuries on defense to stalwarts like Nick Fairley (never played, heart condition), linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro thanks to the brilliant All-Pro worthy play of defensive end Cam Jordan and Rookie of the Year-worthy work of cornerback Marshon Lattimore, among others. The Saints defense doesn’t rank up there with its offense — New Orleans was No. 2 in the NFL in yards gained this season, No. 17 in yards allowed — but it’s been scrappy and opportunistic when it counted. They’re a respectable ninth in turnover ratio, coming up with critical fumbles and interceptions at just the right times and forced big sacks, like the one on Carolina’s Cam Newton last week by Jordan that resulted in an intentional grounding penalty and set the Saints dodging ice floes on their way up the Mississippi River back to Minneapolis.
Minnesota is a formidable foe, possessing the NFL’s top-ranked defense. A franchise that has often been very good but never quite tasted greatness — the Vikings were the first team to go 0-4 in the Super Bowl, starting with a loss in Super Bowl IV at old Tulane Stadium — so its fans are starving for a championship long deferred.
But like the Saints in many respects, Minnesota isn’t exactly the same team it was in September. Particularly at the most important position: quarterback. Case Keenum filled in for an injured Sam Bradford in Week 3 and filled in well. Under him, the Vikings have gone 11-3, and he has the second-highest completion percentage in the NFL behind ... you know who.
It’s hard for the Saints not to envy the Vikings their defense and their home-dome advantage. But it’s hard for the Vikings not to covet a wily vet like Brees. He has 12 playoff games (and a Super Bowl title) and nearly 4,000 career yards passing on his résumé. This is Keenum’s first playoff start. He could handle it brilliantly, but regular-season pressure isn’t the same as playoff pressure. In an added dollop of a good thing potentially being a negative, Keenum may be looking over his shoulder as Bradford is active Sunday. If things don’t go well for the Vikings' offense, might they insert Bradford to save the day?
The Saints, of course, can’t concern themselves with such subplots and wishes for such complications for the Vikings. They have to be the team that balanced the run and the pass so well most of the season and make the handful of game-turning plays on defense to keep the score manageable. Minnesota allowed 20 points or less 12 times in 2017, so you can figure this isn’t going to be a 38-35 shootout.
Is the Saints' season about to end, or will the circle remain unbroken? The time has come round for New Orleans’ biggest football game in years, a game to determine just how truly special this season that started badly but then inflated with promise can be.