Division leaders get together in Minneapolis for a rematch of last year's playoff thriller
Week 8 of the NFL season offers New Orleans the chance to exact some revenge on Minnesota. The Vikings beat the Saints twice last season, but the one everyone remembers is the NFC Divisional Round playoff game that saw the home team escape thanks to the "Minneapolis Miracle."
Last week, it was the Saints (5-1) who escaped from the Ravens on the road, as Drew Brees and Sean Payton picked up their first career wins over Baltimore thanks to a 17-point fourth quarter and a history-making miss on an extra point attempt by Justin Tucker. With everyone thinking the game was headed into overtime following Joe Flacco's 14-yard touchdown pass to John Brown with just 24 seconds remaining, Tucker's miss (his first after making the first 222 PATs of his career) secured New Orleans' impressive 24-23 road victory and kept the team in first place in the NFC South.
The Vikings (4-2-1) also come into this game with momentum, having won three in a row to put them atop the NFC North. Two of those (Philadelphia, New York Jets) came on the road. Minnesota is getting quality quarterback play from Kirk Cousins while the defense is starting to round into from after some tough outings earlier in the season.
New Orleans at Minnesota
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 28, 8:20 PM ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Vikings -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen shred the Saints’ pass defense?
Adam Thielen has dominated opposing defensive backs. In three key categories (total receptions, receiving yards per game and receptions for first downs), he leads the NFL. He has averaged 117.4 receiving yards per game. He has caught at least 100 yards worth of passes in every game this season. His five receiving touchdowns have him tied for seventh in the league.
Kirk Cousins has contributed his fair share toward the offensive success of Minnesota. He has completed 70 percent of his passes, good for the fourth-highest completion rate in the NFL. He has averaged 308.9 yards through the air. His 14 touchdown passes are tied for ninth most in the NFL. He also has thrown just three interceptions.
The Saints' defensive backs have been the weakest component of their team. They have allowed opposing quarterbacks back to complete 69 percent of their passes for an average of 293.7 yards per game, both fifth highest in the NFL. They have permitted nine touchdown passes, ninth most. They have intercepted only two passes, which is the second lowest total.
Questions are also swirling around the availability of some of the Saints’ defensive backs. Is Marcus Williams’ groin injury serious enough to make him miss any snaps? He did sit out the final Ravens’ possession last week because of this issue. Will Eli Apple be able to contribute any playing time? The Saints just acquired him in a trade with the Giants on Tuesday.
If the Saints have hope of keeping Cousins, Thielen and the rest of the Vikings’ offense in check, it lies in pressuring the quarterback. He has been sacked 19 times, the 11th-highest total in the NFL. His passing yards per game, adjusted after subtracting sack yardage, drops to 293 per game. However, the Saints have sacked opposing quarterbacks only 13 times, fifth fewest in the NFL.
2. Will the Saints smother yet another opponent’s rushing attack?
The Vikings have relied noticeably more on passing to advance the ball. Latavius Murry has been pressed into lead running back duties because of a lingering hamstring injury to Dalvin Cook. He's averaging just 47.1 rushing yards per game, but some of that is due to Cook's presence earlier in the season, as Murray has gotten a total of 69 carries in the first seven games. He has run for 224 yards and three touchdowns in the last two games, wins over the Cardinals and Jets.
As well as Cousins has played, Minnesota needs a semblance of a running game. In the four games when the Vikings have gained at least 70 yards on the ground they are 4-0. When they fall short of that mark they are just 0-2-1.
New Orleans is allowing just 72.3 rushing yards per game so right around Minnesota's magic number. When the Saints have held opponents to less than 70 yards on the ground they are 3-0. They have only given up more than 93 rushing yards once. Tampa Bay ran for 112 in the season opener, which also is the only game New Orleans has lost thus far.
3. Can Vikings put pressure on Drew Brees and force turnovers?
The Vikings need to harass Brees for Minnesota to win. They are tied for sixth place with sacks per game with three per game. In one of their two losses, they sacked the opposing quarterback just once.
The Saints have improved their protection of the NFL's all-time leading passer. His offensive line has given up only nine sacks in six games. That is tied for second lowest in the league. Last week, the fearsome Ravens’ defense only dropped Brees once for a loss of seven yards.
Minnesota’s defense needs to pick off some passes or recover some fumbles in addition. The Vikings have had at least two takeaways in all four victories. When they have not any contributed turnovers, they are 0-2-1.
New Orleans’ offense has protected the ball for the most part. The Saints are the only team who has not yet thrown an interception this season. They have fumbled the ball away six times. Their number of turnovers is tied for third lowest in the NFL.
The Saints return to the site where last season began and ended for them. Sean Payton and his players have downplayed any notion of revenge against the Vikings. Has his team completely moved past being one miraculous play away from the NFC Championship Game?
The Vikings have righted their ship after a 1-2-1 start. They have reverted to their mode of operation from the mid-80s through the early '90s: a quarterback firing the ball to speedy receivers to offset a mediocre running game complemented with a fierce pass rush on defense. Those teams bedeviled the Saints too.
Prediction: Vikings 31, Saints 30
— 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.