Saints host the Vikings on Christmas Day with both teams in search of a much-needed win
The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints will meet in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Christmas Day with both teams hoping to unwrap a victory. Both teams enter this special holiday get-together trying to snap two-game losing streaks.
Minnesota (6-8) fell at home to Chicago this past Sunday, losing 33-27. The Vikings not only trail the Bears in the NFC North standings, but they also are two games behind the Cardinals, who currently holds the final wild-card spot. This is a must-win game if Minnesota wants to have even a glimmer of hope of sneaking into the playoffs.
New Orleans (10-4) also has lost two in a row following Kansas City's 32-29 victory in the Superdome this past Sunday. Drew Brees returned after missing four games with a punctured lung and 11 cracked ribs, but he showed plenty of rust early and despite a late rally, the Chiefs were able to hold on. The Saints trail Green Bay for the coveted top seed and first-round bye while their lead in the NFC South over Tampa Bay has been trimmed to just one game. But the good news is that New Orleans has already punched its postseason ticket and can secure the division title with a win over Minnesota.
This will be the fourth time these teams have played each other in the last four seasons. Two of these matchups have taken place in the playoffs, including the most recent one from last season when the Vikings upset the Saints 26-20 in the Wild Card Round.
Minnesota at New Orleans
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 25 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Does Drew Brees have any dependable wide receivers?
Due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols, the starting wide receivers have varied greatly for New Orleans. None have started every game. The Saints have been forced to elevate receivers from the practice squad but have yet to produce much success with any of them.
Tre'Quan Smith is the only wideout who has appeared in every game (made 10 starts) so far. This season, he has caught 34 passes for 448 yards and four touchdowns. He left last week's game against Kansas City with an ankle injury and his status is very much up in the air.
Emmanuel Sanders, the big offseason acquisition at the position, has appeared in 12 games this season. He's made just three starts but still ranks second on the team in receptions (48) and receiving yards (580), to go along with four touchdowns.
Michael Thomas, the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year, has played in just seven games up to this point. He's current on injured reserve as the team hopes he can fully recover from his ankle injury for the playoffs. Even with the injuries, Thomas is third on the team in receptions (40), underscoring the depth problem for New Orleans.
Brees has tight end Jared Cook (team-high six touchdown catches) and, of course, running back Alvin Kamara (leads in catches and yards) to throw to, but someone else on the roster needs to step up to force defenses to change up its coverage schemes. Minnesota can certainly be thrown on (252.4 ypg, 27 TDs, 12 INTs); Brees just needs to have time to find an open receiver.
2. Can any of the Saints' defensive backs contain Justin Jefferson?
On the other side, Minnesota has found its newest weapon in the passing game. Jefferson, the team's first-round pick, is making a strong case for the Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. The former LSU Tiger is putting together a historic debut with 73 catches for 1,182 yards and seven touchdowns. He's eighth in the NFL in yards and is averaging 16.2 yards per reception. He's had six 100-yard receiving games, which is two more than New Orleans as a team.
Defensively, three wide receivers have posted 100 or more receiving yards against the Saints this season — Green Bay's Allen Lazard (6 receptions, 146 yards, 1 touchdown), the Los Angeles Chargers' Mike Williams (5 receptions, 109 yards, 2 touchdowns), and Atlanta's Calvin Ridley (5 receptions, 108 yards). (Las Vegas tight end Darren Waller also has posted a 100-yard game against New Orleans.)
New Orleans has fared pretty well overall against the pass this season, ranking fifth at 210.9 yards per game allowed. But teams also have said some success through the air against the Saints, as evidenced by the 25 touchdown passes surrendered compared to 13 interceptions. Last week, Patrick Mahomes threw for 254 yards and three touchdowns as Kansas City posted 411 total yards on 92 plays, dominating time of possession by holding onto the ball for more than 41 minutes.
Minnesota's offense isn't on the same level as the defending Super Bowl champs, but Jefferson and fellow wideout Adam Thielen give Kirk Cousins two reliable, explosive options to throw to, and that's before taking Dalvin Cook, the league's No. 2 rusher, into account.
3. Will the Vikings be able to protect Cousins?
Pass protection is always a key for any team facing the Saints. New Orleans is tied for sixth in the league with 40 sacks, including four of Mahomes last Sunday. Trey Hendrickson has enjoyed a breakout season, tied for second in the NFL with 12.5 sacks. He and Cameron Jordan have made a living in opponents' backfield this season each credited with 11 tackles for a loss.
Cousins has been sacked 34 times — on 7.2 percent of his pass attempts. But in Cousins' case, it's more than just losing yards on sacks. It's the cumulative effect pressure can have on him. Cousins is having a solid season with 3,569 passing yards and 29 touchdowns, but he also has committed 18 turnovers, including 13 interceptions (tied for second-most). If the Saints are successful in closing the pocket on him more miscues could follow.
Minnesota's postseason hopes are like a thin thread holding up a heavy ornament on a Christmas tree. It will not take much for that to snap and the Vikings' dreams of reaching the playoffs to shatter. In order to avoid elimination, they not only must beat the Saints in their own building but also get help from San Francisco (at Arizona) and Jacksonville (vs. Chicago).
New Orleans is slumping but remains in an enviable position. A win over the Vikings and one of their Christmas gifts will be another NFC South title. Drew Brees and company have no intention of letting Minnesota spoil their plans this time around.
Prediction: Saints 34, Vikings 24
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.