The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints are set to face off in the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs with the winner advancing on to the Conference Championship game. The matchup is a heavyweight battle between the NFL’s No. 1 defense in points and yards and the NFC’s No. 3 offense in points and 1 offense in yards. Where will each team try to gain an advantage? Let’s have a look…
New Orleans: Drew Brees
You can use just about any level of hyperbole to describe Drew Brees’s excellence over the past decade and it still wouldn’t be enough. He has led the NFL in passing yards in five of the last seven seasons and this year led in completion percentage and yards per attempt. Since 2009, he has a 101.5 quarterback rating, which would be a great single season for 95 percent of NFL quarterbacks. Brees is the same player in the postseason that he is in the regular season, with a career 101.6 playoff rating and average of 326 yards passing per game. In the Saints’ win over Carolina in the Wild Card round, he tossed for 376 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Accuracy, intelligence, competitiveness, pocket presence, fearlessness… there isn’t a clear weakness in Brees’s game.
Minnesota: Case Keenum
Case Keenum had some bumps along the road in his early starts, but had a stretch of strong games in the second half that moved his numbers into the top 10 in passer rating and Pro Football Focus grade He has proven to be a perfect fit for Pat Shurmur’s West Coast offense, efficiently finding receivers in position to create yards after catch. His ability to escape the pocket and either run or find receivers on the move will keep the Saints up at night. The areas where he graded below average were in third-and-long situations and downfield passing. PFF rated him 21st in the NFL in “big-time throws.” When the Vikings play from ahead and run the ball, Keenum can control possession and suck the life out of the opposition’s offense.
New Orleans: Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara
Mark Ingram is one of the best and most consistent running backs in the NFL. He’s averaged 5.0 yards per attempt over the last two seasons and cleared 1,000 yards both years. Ingram also has 104 receptions over the past two years. The addition of super rookie Alvin Kamara has turned the Saints’ backfield into the centerpiece of their offense. Kamara may be known as the scat back, but he averaged 6.1 yards per rushing attempt and scored eight rushing touchdowns to go along with his 81 receptions. The former Tennessee back has a little bit of shifty, low-to-the-ground running style that will remind you of LeSean McCoy.
Minnesota: Latavius Murray, Jerick McKinnon
Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon are the Vikings’ version of Ingram-Kamara, with slightly more defined roles. Murray is the power runner. Since Dalvin Cook went down with an ACL tear, Murray averaged 4.3 yards per carry and rushed at a 1,200 yard pace over 16 games. He was excellent in the red zone, scoring eight touchdowns and put enough fear in opposing defenses to play a role in creating play-action throws. Following Cook’s injury, McKinnon ran for 544 yards and added 381 yards through the air (a 1,200 yard from scrimmage pace over 16 games). Getting Pat Elflein back at center will help create explosive plays on short throws to McKinnon.
Advantage: Slight edge to Saints
New Orleans: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Tommylee Lewis, Josh Hill
Michael Thomas is simply one of the best players in the NFL. He caught 104 passes on 149 targets (69.8 percent completion percentage) for 1,245 yards. Thomas is 6-foot-3 and is one of the strongest receivers in the NFL, which allows him to get off the line of scrimmage and make contested catches. In his first battle with Xavier Rhodes, Thomas had five catches for 45 yards. The rest of the crew is underwhelming. Deep threat Ted Ginn had a solid season with 53 receptions at 14.8 yards per grab, while Willie Snead saw his role essentially disappear. Tight end Josh Hill only averaged 7.8 yards per attempt.
Minnesota: Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Jarius Wright, Laquon Treadwell, Kyle Rudolph, David Morgan
Here’s a stat for you (per PFF): When throwing to Stefon Diggs, Case Keenum has a 116 quarterback rating and 102 rating when throwing to Adam Thielen.
Stefon Diggs led the NFL in contested catches! pic.twitter.com/LlPYVC4kc3
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 13, 2018
The two receivers play off each other, making it nearly impossible for opponents to focus on one. If they bring a safety up to the line of scrimmage, Diggs or Thielen will beat their man one-on-one. Thielen’s increased usage in the slot this year has added another element to his game. Kyle Rudolph’s ankle is in better shape than the final three weeks, which should allow him to take on a full slate of plays. When everything is clicking, the role players get involved for a key catch here or there and the Vikings have a complete, versatile attack.
New Orleans: Terron Armstead, Senio Kelemete, Max Unger, Larry Warford, Ryan Ramczyk
At the tackle position, the Saints are in very good shape. When Armstead is at his best, he’s an elite left tackle. However, he’s been slowed by a thigh injury that limited him in practice this week. The former third-round pick is one of the best athletes at his position. Ramczyk has turned out to be a top-notch right tackle and a steal in the 2017 draft for the Saints. PFF ranked him as their No. 8 tackle in the NFL this year. In the middle, there are more question marks. Kelemete is in for Andrus Peat, who went on IR after suffering an injury against Carolina. Kelemete is a good pass blocker but struggles to run block. That could be an issue against Linval Joseph. Unger and Warford are proven veteran players.
Minnesota Vikings: ??????
We won’t know until gameday which combination of linemen the Vikings are going to use, but it would make sense to have Riley Reiff at left tackle, Joe Berger playing left guard, Pat Elflein at center, Mike Remmers in at right guard and Rashod Hill start at right tackle. Remmers did an excellent job against Akiem Hicks in Week 17 and Berger can play anywhere. Elflein’s return will be vital to the Vikings creating explosive plays in the run and pass game. Hill has proven to be a starting caliber right tackle with his strong suit being pass blocking.
New Orleans: Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Tyeler Davison, David Onyemata
PFF rated Cameron Jordan their No. 1 edge rusher this year. He’s powerful, quick, instinctual and relentless. The Saints will line him up on both sides depending on the situation. Jordan had 13.0 sacks this year. Rankins has grown from Year 1 to Year 2, creating more pressure in the passing game than in his rookie season. In the middle, the two defensive tackles are solid in the run game but rarely pressure the quarterback. Losing Alex Okafor to injury was a big hit to the Saints’ D-line.
Minnesota: Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson
Linval Joseph will be the most important D-lineman in this matchup. He can single-handedly take away an opponent’s running game. In this case, that would mean slowing down two of the Saints’ most important offensive players. Everson Griffen finished the year with 13.0 sacks. His sack production slowed toward the end of the season, but he still hit and pressured QBs enough to disrupt passing games. Tom Johnson will be facing off with his old team. He has risen to the challenge of being relied upon for more snaps this year.
Advantage: Slight edge to Vikings
New Orleans: Mantei Te’o, Craig Robertson
After all the debates over Te’o during his draft year, the former Notre Dame linebacker has become a solid player. He ranked as PFF’s 30th best linebacker, with his better grades coming in coverage. The Saints are vulnerable against the run, allowing 4.4 yards per carry (28th) this year. Robertson is similarly solid in coverage. He picked off two passes and had six pass deflections this year. The Saints have a number of injured linebackers, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Vikings run a ton of multiple TE sets or personnel that includes an extra lineman or fullback.
Minnesota Vikings: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Ben Gedeon
One of the biggest assets the Vikings’ defense has is two linebackers who can cover running backs out of the backfield. The Vikings allowed the fewest pass yards per game to running backs and rated among the best against opposing tight ends. Much of that can be attributed to how quickly Barr and Kendricks close on opponents. The Saints took advantage of Gedeon at times in the first matchup. It will be worth watching to see whether Zimmer uses him or sticks with a nickel corner in the game when the Saints go with multiple RBs or TEs.
New Orleans: Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley, PJ Williams, Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell
Normally it takes rookies a year or two to adapt to the NFL level. Not for Lattimore or Williams. The pair became two of the best defensive backs in the NFL right away. Lattimore, who had five INTs, rated fourth by PFF metrics. He’s an athletic freak who has shadowed top receivers in the second half of the year. Williams has four INTs of his own. Ken Crawley is an underappreciated CB who had 17 pass deflections in 13 games and rated 28th by PFF.
Minnesota: Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Terence Newman, Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo
So long as Newman is healthy, the Vikings have the best group of DBs in the NFL. Rhodes against Michael Thomas will be a show on its own. Rhodes gave up just 6.4 yards per attempt into his coverage this year. Waynes will be the one to watch closely. Brees attacked him in Week 1 for nine completions on 10 throws. Harrison Smith is playing at a Defensive MVP level and was ranked as PFF’s highest rated player. Sendejo has put together another solid season.
Advantage: Slight edge to Vikings