With the regular season now in the books, the Saints finished with a 13-3 record but that was only good enough for the #3 seed in the NFC due to tiebreakers, making the shootout loss against the 49ers all the more frustrating. The Saints walked over Carolina in week 17 and were able to rest some starters during the game with rotation. The Vikings had a dead-rubber with the #6 seed secured so rested all of their starters meaning they will be fit and healthy for this one. With the Saints offense clicking and the defense improving once again, even with mounting injuries, the Black and Gold will hope to win this one at home in the dome. I will now discuss the biggest threats and preview the game.
Danger man who has had two weeks rest with injury niggles is Dalvin Cook. The running back has amassed over 1,100 rushing yards on the 14 games he has played, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. He has also been used well in the passing game with over 500 yards but a much better average of 9.8 yards per reception. Physical strength and power are the name of Cook’s game and his offensive line do a great job of blocking for him. 13 scores on the ground on the season for Cook, used especially in the RedZone.
The Saints will have their work cut out to slow down Cook because it will be a real challenge to stop him entirely. Should Cook be held to relatively low yardage, the Vikings will use an air raid attack in this one. Getting Cook isolated against a Linebacker in coverage is what Minnesota will be attacking here, especially in a short passing and screen game.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins is the man under centre for Minnesota. His numbers don’t actually read badly but he is yet to live up to the standards of the huge contract handed out to him by the Vikings. Only 6 interceptions on the year with 26 Touchdowns. Cousins has racked up 3,603 passing yards and his protection is a lot to do with this. The offensive line has kept Cousins clean for the most part with only 28 sacks allowed, that’s only 3 more than the Saints.
The stat everyone likes to bring up is the fact that he is 0-9 on MNF games. He was particularly outplayed by Green Bay in the crucial week 16 game. With this record being the case, it has led to a theory he can’t perform in the big games. With this being a 12.05pm (CT) game, this shouldn’t be a factor but the importance of the game will weigh heavy, a playoff road win will silence any doubters for Cousins. The Saints will do what they can to stop this happening. Pressure will be the key here, Cousins can panic under duress which the Saints need to force all important turnovers.
Expect to see a lot of play action and bootlegs from Cousins which have worked in his favour recently and have been a downfall of the Saints D at times, especially in the 49ers game where mis-direction was a large factor in getting 48 points scored against them.
The Vikings have weapons in the receiving department and Stefon Diggs is leading the way in terms of yardage with 1,130, over 600 more than anyone else. Again, another talking point before this game will be the “Minneapolis Miracle” which we don’t need to go over again. Minnesota will be looking to Diggs in the deep shot game, getting him matched up one on one with a free safety and get chunk plays completed. I expect Marshon Lattimore to be on Diggs in coverage, especially with Apple’s potential injury and the speed match-up.
Fellow wideout Adam Thielen is another big threat. Having missed out through a few injuries, he should be fine for this game. The receiver having missed some time will help the Saints as no.2 cornerback Eli Apple is still listed as Did Not Practise. Although he has only played 10 games, Thielen still has many Touchdowns as Diggs (6) on the year. The Vikings will look to use him all over the field and in the RedZone for short yard catches.
The other “go up and get it” player is Tight End Kyle Rudolph. As with the other two above, he also has 6 scores on the season but with much lower yardage (367). He is used in a similar way to Josh Hill, using his physicality to catch balls that the others couldn’t reach. Stopping Rudolph with batted passes is key, as once he gets the ball, he won’t drop it.
The Saints defense will have to limit Dalvin Cook in both air and ground game. The Linebackers will be crucial for this, so expected Demario Davis to have a big say. The chunk plays cannot be allowed, so if the secondary can stop Diggs receiving 20+ yard passes, this will go a long way to stopping the Vikings. Pressure from Cam Jordan, Trey Hendrickson and others will certainly help this.
With Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell not at full tilt (but back in full practise), CJGJ will be required again for support and to continue his excellent form. Although the Saints won’t fully stop Minnesota, if they can limit them to under 20 points, they should win this game.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Vikings most certainly have some playmakers. The Saints offense seems to have found it’s groove though, scoring 34 or more in 6 of their last 7 games. If they continue to put up these numbers again, they should be heading to the divisional round.
The man hitting the opposing QB’s the most is Danielle Hunter. He has racked up 14.5 on the regular season. Not always the guy you think of for sacks but he has been a part of a unit with the Vikings and getting to the Quarterback has been his key factor this year. The Saints offensive line will be wary of Hunter. The Vikings get sacks when the get pressure, however, they sit 25th in the NFL on creating pressure.
Safety tandem Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are the guys with the interceptions and defensed passes. Harris has a team high 6, with Smith gaining 3 on the regular season. They both stand at 11 passes defensed but Smith gets a lot more involved with the tackling game and is used a lot of different situations. One of them will be helping out the cornerbacks in coverage of Michael Thomas so Drew Brees may look to his other receivers who are matched-up one on one downfield. Yes Ted Ginn Jr. is still around!
Eric Kendricks is one of the most well-known players on this defense. He is currently struggling with an injury and is DNP as it stands. The Linebacker is a huge playmaker for both the pass and run game with a team high 110 tackles, you can see why. If he plays, the Saints will need to get around Kendricks and use other outlets to get yards. Although he doesn’t appear on lots of the main stats, he has gotten 12 passes defensed and is a good coverage Linebacker as well as physical when stopping the runs.
One player who isn’t having his best year but is still a great player is Xavier Rhodes. With Michael Thomas being un-guardable this season, Rhodes may struggle to contain him. I’m expecting a lot of safety help for Rhodes of whichever corner is trying to stop MT13. With the Vikings having great safeties, this could be a very good ploy. Again, New Orleans will look to all of their options as potential targets.
Anthony Barr on Alvin Kamara or Latavius Murray will be a great match-up in the run and pass game. More AK than Murray with his many talents but trying to beat him through the lines or in the screen game will be a key factor.
Everson Griffen is the last player I want to mention. 8 sacks on the year for Griffen to go with Hunter’s big year – the Saints offensive line will most certainly have their work cut out to keep Brees on his feet and upright.
With the Vikings very good Linebackers and safeties, the Saints will need to dial up something a bit different. With players such as Jared Cook and Tre’Quan Smith getting more and more involved in recent weeks, this tactic could be used again here. Obviously, a lot of attention will go Thomas and Kamara therefore others could stand out. Look out for Taysom Hill to score once again in the passing game.
Pass protection is again a big point with an effective pass rush from Minnesota. The Saints will hope to establish a run game and use passing plays to have multiple outlets. I really like Jared Cook in this game, especially in Vikings territory.
Both teams will score some Touchdowns here, I just think they Saints will get a comfortable win in the end. Not having the bye could work in New Orleans favour, keeping them hot and rolling on all sides of the ball.
The Vikings have produced quite a few comebacks this season but can’t see one here if the Saints get out to a two or three score advantage. I’m expecting this to follow the Saints regular season pattern. Get the lead, rest a few starters on D and concede a late TD or two to make the game score closer than it actually is.
Saints 31 – Vikings 21
Predicted Star man: Jared Cook.