A season-opening rematch will determine one participant in the NFC Championship Game with New Orleans and Minnesota set to face each other for the second time. The Vikings beat the Saints 29-19 back in Week 1, but much has changed since then for both teams.
New Orleans knocked off NFC South rival Carolina for a third time this past Sunday, beating the Panthers 31-26 in their wild-card game. Minnesota, the No. 2 seed in the NFC bracket, enjoyed a week away from football after earning a first-round bye.
In the season opener, the Vikings racked up 470 yards of offense against the Saints, including 341 and three touchdowns through the air. But Sam Bradford, and not Case Keenum (above, right), was Minnesota’s starting quarterback that game. For New Orleans, Drew Brees did his part with 291 passing yards and a score, but the ground game managed just 60 yards on 21 carries. Adrian Peterson, who is no longer with the Saints, and Alvin Kamara tied for the team lead with a mere 18 rushing yards apiece.
This will mark the fourth playoff meeting between these teams. The Vikings hold a 2-1 edge but the Saints won the most recent postseason encounter — the NFC Championship Game during the 2009-10 playoffs. New Orleans won 31-28 in overtime at home, in a game that became the linchpin for the Saints’ Bountygate scandal.
NFC Divisional Playoff: New Orleans at Minnesota
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 16 at 4:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Minnesota -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Re-emergence of the Saints’ running game?
In this past Sunday’s win over Carolina during Wild Card Weekend, New Orleans managed just 41 rushing yards (with two touchdowns) while averaging less than two yards per carry (1.9). This was after putting up 297 total in the first two wins against the Panthers. Fortunately for the Saints, Drew Brees powered the offense with 376 passing yards and two touchdowns as Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. both finished with more than 100 receiving yards.
The problem for New Orleans in this game, however, is that Minnesota has been extremely stingy against the run. The Vikings finished the regular season second in the NFL in rushing defense (83.6 ypg), allowing an opponent to gain more than 100 on the ground just six times.
In the Week 1 matchup, Minnesota’s defense limited the Saints to just 60 rushing yards, their third-lowest total of the season. Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram (right) and Adrian Peterson each had at least six carries (Kamara led the way with seven) but combined for just 53 yards. Peterson ended up getting traded to Arizona in early October, as Kamara and Ingram both went on to put together Pro Bowl seasons. Ingram wound up fifth in the league in rushing (1,124) and second in touchdowns on the ground (12). Kamara, the rookie, became a weapon as a runner and receiver, ranking sixth in yards from scrimmage (1,554) and second in total touchdowns (14).
Their production aside, New Orleans’ inability to run the ball effectively at home this past Sunday has to be a cause for concern among the coaching staff, players and certainly the fans. The Saints finished second in the league in total offense because Brees got plenty of support from Ingram and Kamara. However, Minnesota put the clamps down on New Orleans running game once. If “Boom and Zoom” don’t fare better this time, there’s no reason to expect a different result on the scoreboard.
2. Sterling experience versus glaring inexperience
Brees is completing his 17th NFL season, his 12th in New Orleans. He will make his 13th career postseason start on Sunday, entering with a 7-5 record. Since he’s been with the Saints, Brees has played in 190 of 192 regular-season games.
Compare that to Case Keenum, who has 38 career starts (41 games played) over six seasons. Sunday will be his first-ever playoff game. Even though Keenum has enjoyed a breakout season after taking over for an injured Sam Bradford, this is unchartered territory for him.
How will the magnitude of this game affect the quarterbacks? This moment will not intimidate Brees, even playing on the road. He has already started playoff games in hostile environments such as Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago. Conversely, Keenum must not let jitters or the novelty of the situation coerce him into committing costly errors.
3. Who will make the critical, game-turning mistake?
The Saints did not commit a turnover in their first four games then, following their bye, gave away the ball at least twice in their next four games. Over the course of the season, Brees has thrown eight interceptions, that translate to one every 67 pass attempts (536 total). New Orleans tied with Minnesota, New England Kansas City (all playoff teams) for the second-fewest interceptions during the regular season. However, the Saints did have some issues with fumble. As a team, they lost 10 fumbles in 16 games. Ingram led the way in that category with three.
The Vikings won all eight games in which they did not turn over the ball and posted a differential of minus-six in their three losses. Keenum has thrown just seven interceptions among his 481 pass attempts, while Minnesota as a team has lost just six fumbles. Running back Jerick McKinnon and wide receiver Adam Thielen (right) have two each. In total, New Orleans was plus-seven in turnover differential during the regular season, tied for fourth in the NFC, while the Vikings were right behind at plus-six. The Saints’ margin can be attributed in part to their 20 interceptions, third most in the league. On the other hand, Minnesota had just 14 giveaways, third fewest among all teams.
Ball security aside, penalties have proved more problematic for both teams. Both teams are among the top 12 in terms of penalty yards on offense and the Vikings are also in that range on defense. But New Orleans also has seen the outcome of games impacted significantly by penalties (see Week 14 at Atlanta).
With such evenly matched teams, one play could end up deciding the outcome. A penalty late in the game could extend the eventual game-winning drive. A turnover could sabotage the possible tying or go-ahead score. Which team will cost itself the win with a self-inflicted mistake?
These teams have taken different paths to the Divisional Round. The Vikings sailed their way to an NFC North title and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs thanks to their dominant defense and dependable quarterback play. The Saints marched to a wild-card berth with a balanced offense and a defense that became much less generous than it was in the three previous seasons.
The end result is a rematch that offers a classic offense vs. defense pairing. New Orleans finished the regular season ranked in the top five in all four major offensive categories. Minnesota was No. 1 in yards and points per game allowed, and second against both the run and pass. It is the quintessential “irresistible force vs. immovable object” storyline ready to be settled on the gridiron.
The Saints’ offense is no longer simply Drew Brees throwing the ball all over the field, thanks to the dynamic running back duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Their emergence has made the passing attack harder to defend. More importantly, the defense has made significant strides since giving up 470 yards to the Vikings in Week 1.
But Minnesota has the league’s stingiest defense and a quarterback in Case Keenum who has enjoyed a breakthrough season of his own. Keenum wasn’t a factor in the first meeting, but he will be this game, one way or the other. But the good news for him is that he has a defense that has already tamed New Orleans once to lean on. Will we see a similar outcome on Sunday?