Not many rivalries have as consistently delivered in the playoffs as the one between the two teams which will get the 2019 NFC Wild Card round underway this Sunday. The Saints and the Vikings have put on a very competitive series of battles throughout the past decade, and here they find themselves as two of the top NFC sides yet again.
New Orleans managed to overcome many problems to show just how deep and talented their roster is. Drew Brees missed five games due to an injury – Teddy Bridgewater had no problems winning all those coming in relief. Alvin Kamara also suffered a dip in his production but a dominant defensive unit saved the Saints throughout. They enter Sunday’s matchup having won 6 of their last 7 and are favoured by 7.5 points.
The Vikings made that jump performance-wise to reach the playoffs after a year of absence. While their offense is what has driven them towards being amongst the NFL’s best clubs, they need their running game unit to remain healthy or else they’ll be in trouble. That was avidly on display two weeks ago when Minnesota lost to Green Bay with RB Dalvin Cook out. The Vikings eventually lost their Week 17 meeting with the Bears and have now been victorious in only two of their past five games.
The Saints will be defending a positive streak against the Vikes in the Wild Card round. Minnesota has lost 4 of their last 5 against the Saints, including when they were on the losing end last October at the Superdome, losing 30-20 on Sunday Night Football. What’s better is that most of their games have come down to the wire, especially when the stakes are as high as staying alive in the chase for the Super Bowl.
Their last two playoff collisions need no introductions. We all remember the Minneapolis Miracle, we all remember the 2009 NFC Championship Game, which went down in history furthermore as Brees vs. Favre or the game that started “Bountygate”.
The 2019 Wild Card game seems like another thriller in the makings. These are two teams that aren’t equally consistent on both sides of the ball but on their day could put on a display of a top team.
Keys to the game
Cook vs. Saints defensive line is the key for Minnesota
Dalvin Cook has rushed for over 1000 yards for the first time since getting drafted out of Florida State in 2015. His usage was various – from rushed through the middle to carries by the edges of the pocket, even getting his fair share of receptions. That has been mostly thanks to improvement by the offensive line, which ranks 7th in fewest sacks allowed.
The ground game will have to deal with one of the best defensive units against the rush, which they’ve been very successful at thus far this year. The Saints’ defensive line is the 4th-best against the run. The two best rushing defenses the Vikings faced in the regular season – the Eagles and the Raiders – resulted in 122 yards and 211 yards, respectively, on the ground. That contributed to two blowout wins in those games.
Moreover, we could witness Cook shift his focus on running through the middle more as Cam Jordan and Trey Hendrickson, who have combined for 20.0 sacks this season, are both likely to get more snaps as defensive ends. Only four teams, Rams, Chargers, Dolphins and Falcons, have gained less total yards from rushes up the middle than the Vikings, per stats from NFLsavant.com.
Can Xavier Rhodes stop Michael Thomas?
Minnesota will be dealt a huge blow with Mike Hughes, arguably the best cornerback on the Vikings roster this season, absent with neck injury. Opposing playmakers have a rating of just 91.9 against Hughes, which is lower than Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes.
That means Rhodes will be assigned against Michael Thomas, who has had a record-breaking 2019 campaign. The fourth-year receiver out of Ohio State has recorded more than 1700 yards from 149 catches, with the latter setting a new NFL record.
Could a hand injury limit Thomas on Sunday? It might, but Rhodes’ performance this year isn’t very encouraging for Minnesota. He’s allowed a head-scratching 123.4 rating from 81 targets. That marks an increase of nearly 40 points compared to last year. He’s surrendered more yards after a reception as well and if improvement doesn’t occur, Rhodes, once considered a top cornerback, could suffer a rough day against the best wide receiver the National Football League.
Alvin Kamara’s resurgence could power New Orleans
Kamara may have missed a few games, but he hasn’t been what the Saints needed as a consistent threat in the running game. Not counting Week 17 vs. the Panthers, a matchup that had no meaning to it, Kamara had 25 carries in his last two appearances. He recorded 146 yards and is yet to run for 100 yards in a single game this year.
Despite that, it is evident that Brees and a solid offensive line could handle a pass-heavy regime by Sean Peyton. Against the Colts on MNF, on a night when he passed Peyton Manning for most career TD passes, Brees also completed 29 of 30 passing attempts, statistically the most accurate performance in NFL history.
If Kamara has a big night, the New Orleans offense could become so unstoppable that even the Vikings defensive unit, which has the ability to defend various types of plays successfully, will not be able to do anything. The proof – the Saints are 24-1 when since 2017 when he rushes for 50+ yards in a game.
2017 Divisional Round: Vikings win 29-24
The underrated part of that miraculous play that sent the Vikings to the NFC Championship was the missed tackle by safety Marcus Williams. He was a rookie at the time and made a rookie mistake when he just needed to wrap Stefon Diggs for the Saints to go to Philly.
You could tell he isn’t very affected emotionally by that play. He had another productive season, recording 4 interceptions and scoring his first career pick-six. Meanwhile, his allowed QB passer rating went down from 106.6 to 105.4.
2018 Week 8: Saints win 30-20
If that game is an indication of anything, it is that you should prepare to watch the “Kirk Cousins Turnover Show”. After the Vikings led 13-7 in the second quarter, the 7-1 Saints initiated a comeback to lead 17-13 at halftime.
In the middle of the third quarter Cousins threw an interception, returned for a score by P.J. Williams.
If the Vikings successfully execute of defense and Dalvin Cook has a good day, the Vikings can make this a very close game. However, New Orleans is too balance and complex, has very few weaknesses and turns the ball over very rarely. Saints win 31-14.