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The Divisional Round of the playoffs often winds up being the best weekend of the postseason. With pretenders eliminated in the Wild Card Round, and the first round bye teams getting into the mix, we finally get a clear picture of who our true Super Bowl contenders are. Sunday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints will be no different. Two teams with true championship aspirations will try to get one step closer to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on February 4th.
Keys To The Game
Minnesota has the number one ranked defense in the NFL, which isn’t all that surprising. What is surprising is that they rank 11th in total offense with Case Keenum at quarterback. They’ve managed to accomplish that by keeping things balanced (7th in rushing offense and 11th in passing offense, respectively). That balance has worked great for Minnesota all year and they’ll need to continue it against a tough Saints’ defense. Look for Minnesota to give New Orleans a steady diet of the run, with Latavius Murray being called on early and often. The Vikings will look to get the Saints’ defense to start creeping to the line of scrimmage, giving Keenum the opportunity to make a few big plays in the passing game on play action. Defensively, the Saints present myriad problems. They have an exceptional running game, and Drew Brees is well, Drew Brees. The Vikings need to stifle the run game while also not letting Brees fool them with play action. Safety Harrison Smith will need to have a great game captaining the Vikings defense from the back end and match up with Brees mentally. The Vikings can be very dangerous when they play balanced but giving up a few big plays can force you to lose that balance. Minnesota needs precision execution if they want to be the first team to ever play a Super Bowl at home.
If Minnesota needs to maintain balance, New Orleans needs to find a way to re-establish it. The Saints backfield duo of Melvin Ingram and Alvin Kamara was prolific running the ball all season but only managed 41 yards against the Panthers. That lead to 33 passing attempts as opposed to 22 carries. That simply will not get it done against the Minnesota Vikings front seven. The Saints will need to establish the run game to prevent Minnesota from pinning their ears back and coming after Brees. That will not be easy considering their offensive line is banged up. The concern has to be that despite this season’s resurgent run game, this is still a Sean Payton coached team. If Payton doesn’t give the run game time to develop, Brees could be forced to throw the ball 40 plus times, which may be a recipe for disaster. Balance will open up the passing game and New Orleans should be in a good position playing with a lead. They do not want to be in a close game with Minnesota in the fourth quarter. On defense, the Saints need to make Case Keenum try to beat them through the air. If they can bottle up the run game and establish a lead, Keenum will be forced to press in the passing game. Keenum hasn’t thrown a lot of interceptions this season but he’s never played in a playoff atmosphere. New Orleans will try to make Keenum be the hero and prove the regular season wasn’t a fluke.
The X-factor for Minnesota is wide receiver Adam Thielen. New Orleans struggled covering receivers in the middle of the field and in the flats against Carolina, particularly Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffrey. Thielen is at his most dangerous in the slot. If New Orleans doesn’t get that design flaw fixed this week, expect Thielen to gash them across the middle for several big plays.
The X-factor for New Orleans is cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The former first round pick was selected to his first Pro Bowl this season and rightfully so, as he had 5 interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. Lattimore had a great game against Carolina. It will be interesting to see if he specifically matches up with either Thielen or Stefon Diggs, or just plays whoever comes to his side. Regardless, he will likely take away one of Keenum’s favorite targets.
Prediction: This will be a battle of two teams trying to do the same things to each other. Stop the run, establish the run, make a few big plays in the passing game. Expect both teams to struggle on the ground, making this a battle between Drew Brees and Case Keenum. Considering that, the Saints win on the road, 34-21.