Entering Week 17, the Vikings (10-6) knew that they were already locked into the No. 6 seed as the second wild-card team. So they benched several starters at home against Chicago, including quarterback Kirk Cousins. Running back Dalvin Cook also missed the game due to a shoulder injury. Even with a makeshift lineup, Minnesota hung tough, as the Bears needed a 22-yard field goal with 10 seconds left to eke out a 21-19 victory.
The Saints (13-3) entered their regular-season finale with a first-round bye and the No. 1 seed still within reach. With plenty to play for, it was all hands on deck on the road against Carolina, and New Orleans did its part by dispatching of the overmatched Panthers easily, winning 42-10. Unfortunately, Green Bay escaped Detroit with a 23-20 win thanks to a Mason Crosby field goal as time expired. Then on Sunday night, San Francisco came up with a late goal-line stand on the road against Seattle to win 26-21.
The 49ers, Packers, and Saints all finished with a 13-3 record in the regular season. But San Francisco earned top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by virtue of their wins earlier this season over both Green Bay and New Orleans. The Packers grabbed the No. 2 seed thanks to a better conference record (10-2) than the Saints (9-3).
This will be the fifth time these two teams have met in the playoffs. The Vikings lead 3-1 in those matchups with the most recent taking place two seasons ago in the Divisional Round, a game that became known as "Minneapolis Miracle." Down 24-23 at home with just 10 seconds remaining, Case Keenum threw the ball downfield when Stefon Diggs made a leaping catch along the sideline and, after two Saints defenders collided, stayed in bounds and sprinted the rest of the way for the game-winning, 61-yard touchdown as time expired.
NFC Wild Card: Minnesota at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 5 at 1:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Vikings' defensive line be able to pressure Drew Brees and force turnovers?
Minnesota's front four has been the hallmark of its defense this season. Pro Bowler Danielle Hunter's team-leading 14.5 sacks are tied for fourth in the NFL, and he also has forced three fumbles. Everson Griffen is second on the Vikings with eight sacks and has been credited with a team-high 24 quarterback hits. As a team, Minnesota is tied for fifth in the league with 48 sacks.
The Vikings also have shown a knack for creating takeaways. They recorded 17 interceptions (tied for third) and recovered 14 fumbles (fifth) in the regular season. Their 31 total takeaways placed them fourth overall.
But getting New Orleans to cough up the ball may prove difficult. The Saints set an NFL single-season record with just eight turnovers this season. Even though Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, and Taysom Hill have all seen time at quarterback, this trio tossed a total of six interceptions, and the team's two lost fumbles were also a league-low. Some of the quarterbacks' success can be attributed to a solid offensive line that gave up 25 sacks, tied for third-fewest.
2. Can the Saints' cover the Vikings' wide receivers?
New Orleans has effectively defended opposing passing attacks for the most part. Only two teams, Seattle and San Francisco, exceeded 300 yards through the air. In fact, the Saints held five opponents to under 200 passing yards. They also picked off 13 passes.
But New Orleans' secondary is hurting. Safeties Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams have been limited by a knee and groin injury, respectively. Cornerback Eli Apple has been slowed by an ankle problem. All three have not been able to participate fully in practice this week. That's where the extra week courtesy of a first-round bye would have really benefitted the Saints.
Adding to the challenge on Sunday is going up against a Minnesota offense that features several dangerous pass catchers. Stefon Diggs leads the way with 1,130 receiving yards while he, fellow wide receiver Adam Thielen, and tight end Kyle Rudolph each recorded six touchdown catches in the regular season. Thielen's numbers are down this season compared to last, but he's been hampered by injuries, which caused him to miss six games. Still, he remains a dangerous threat whenever he catches the ball, as his 14 yards per catch average and six touchdowns among his 30 receptions show. Rudolph (39 receptions, 367 yards) is one of Kirk Cousins' most trusted targets, especially in the red zone.
Does New Orleans have enough healthy defensive backs to minimize the Vikings' passing game? An effective pass rush is one thing that can help a limited secondary. The Saints finished third with 51 sacks, but Minnesota's offensive line has done a good job keeping Cousins upright. He was sacked a total of 28 times in his 15 starts.
3. Is Dalvin Cook capable of breaking through the Saints' front seven?
Cook has been the engine to make the Vikings' offense hum this season. Even though he has missed the last two games because of a shoulder injury, Cook finished the regular season 10th in the NFL with 1,135 rushing yards. What's more, he was fourth with 13 rushing touchdowns, and for most of the season, Cook averaged more than 20 carries per game. Cook also was a weapon in the passing game, finishing second on the team in both receptions (53) and receiving yards (519). Even with some diminishing returns by the end, Cook was certainly deserving of his Pro Bowl invitation.
As strong a season Cook has had, he faces a stern test on Sunday against New Orleans' stingy run defense. The Saints finished fourth in the league against the run, allowing 91.3 rushing yards per game. More impressive, they haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since the second half of the 2017 season, a span of 42 games. Just last week, Carolina's Christian McCaffrey, who finished in the third in the league in rushing (1,387 yards), managed a total of 26 on the ground (on nine carries). For the season, New Orleans is giving up 64.9 rushing yards per game to running backs.
And to add to the degree of difficulty Cook faces, he hasn't been anywhere near as effective in recent weeks compared to earlier in the season. He averaged just 36 rushing yards per game in the last four games he's played in before the shoulder injury. He also hasn't had a 100-yard performance since Week 7. While Cook has said he will be "at full strength" for Sunday's game, how effective he is, completely healthy or not, against New Orleans' defense remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure, the Vikings will need production on the ground from someone, whether it's Cook, backup Alexander Mattison (who also has been banged up recently), or Mike Boone, who ran for 148 yards in a losing effort last week against Chicago.
Minnesota still had a chance to win the NFC North with two games, both at home, remaining in the regular season. The Vikings lost both of them, but it was the one to Green Bay that relegated them to the second wild-card spot.
New Orleans tied for the best record in the NFC but fell to the No. 3 seed after losing tiebreakers to both San Francisco and Green Bay. As a result, the Saints will have to play an extra game (and on the road for at least one round) if they want to make it to the Super Bowl.
Likewise, Minnesota would have to win three road games to make it to the Super Bowl. But New Orleans is the team many pundits have labeled as the favorite to represent the NFC on Super Sunday despite its seeding. On Sunday, the Saints will support that contention in the friendly confines of the Superdome.
Prediction: Saints 27, Vikings 16
— 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.