4:40 PM EST, FOX – Line: Vikings -5, Over/Under: 47
The final installment of the NFL Playoff’s Division Round is also a rematch of a previous meeting, though you’d be hard-pressed to recognize either team from that particular affair, as both the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings are riding a wave of momentum into today’s matchup from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Saints (11-5, 1st in NFC South) are certainly hoping that their second trip to Minneapolis will provide a different outcome than their previous one, as the eventual NFC Division Champions were manhandled in a 29-19 loss to the Vikings in the Season Opener back on September 11th. Then again, that particular contest pretty much characterized the overall start to the 2017 campaign for New Orleans, who overcame a disappointing 0-2 start to win eleven out of their final fourteen outings, in route to their first NFC Title since 2011 and their first trip to the Playoffs since 2013. Things indeed started slow, for Sean Payton’s charges that day, as their typically prolific Offense sputtered it’s way through four quarters of play, relying on a quartet of Wil Lutz Field Goals before finally reaching the End Zone inside of the Two Minute Warning. Indeed Drew Brees & Co. were unrecognizable, amassing just 344 Total Yards, while converting on 4-of-11 Third Downs, with the venerable Quarterback being largely neutralized on 27-of-37 Passing for 291 Yards and that late Touchdown. However, things would soon change for this team, who would ironically reach this point not necessarily on the strength of Brees (72.0%, 4,334 YDS, 7.53 NY/A, 23 TD, 8 INT) and the Passing Game, but with a suddenly relentless Rushing Attack and a revitalized Defense. While the sudden shift towards the Running Game has been surprising, it’s hardly illogical, particularly given the age of Brees (38), who ended the season completing an NFL-Record 72.0% of his Passes largely due to the fact that he got to finally take a bit of a backseat to the dynamic Backfield Duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The Saints have floored the opposition in this regard, averaging 129.4 Yards (5th Overall) on 4.7 Yards per Carry (2nd Overall), and leading the NFL with Twenty-Three Rushing Touchdowns (1st Overall), despite only needing 27.8 Carries to do so (13th Overall). After a career-year in 2016, Tailback Mark Ingram (288 Touches, 1,540 Total YDS, 12 TD) was selected to his second Pro Bowl, while establishing career-highs in Carries (230), Rushing Yards (1,124), and Rushing Touchdowns (12), along with Receptions (58) and Receiving Yards (416). However, the Seventh-Year Veteran has only been one half of the attack, with Alvin Kamara (201 Touches, 1,554 Total YDS, 13 TD) proving to be the versatile weapon that has ignited this Backfield Revolution in New Orleans. The Third-Round Pick has been a deadly asset to Payton’s arsenal, becoming just the fourth player in NFL History to record over 700 Rushing Yards and 700 Receiving Yards apiece, all the while leading the league in Yards per Carry, netting an explosive 6.1 Yards per Rushing Attempt, and will also be joining his fellow teammate in Honolulu. Furthermore, the tandem of Ingram and Kamara became the first pairing in NFL History to record 1,500 Yards from Scrimmage apiece, with only one (Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack back in 1985) ever surpassing 1,400 Yards. These two combined for just Thirty-Five Rushing Yards in the previous meeting with Minnesota, though they did manage to factor heavily in the Passing Game, hauling in Nine Receptions for Seventy-Four Yards, though much has changed since the Season Opener, when Kamara was still buried on the Depth Chart behind the soon-be-released Adrian Peterson. And speaking of Rookies, Payton and the Front Office really aced this Draft Class, with the likes of Offensive Tackle Ryan Ramczyk, Cornerback Marshon Lattimore (52 TKL, 5 INT, 18 PD, 1 TD, 1 FR), and Safety Marcus Williams (71 TKL, 4 INT, 7 PD) each playing huge roles in their success. The latter pair, particularly Lattimore, have helped vastly improve what has oftentimes been an abysmal Defense over the past three years; after ranking no better than Twenty-Eighth in Scoring Defense and Twenty-Seventh in Total Defense over that period, the Saints have done a complete about-face in 2017, allowing 20.4 Points (10th Overall) on 336.5 Total Yards (17th Overall), including 224.8 Yards against the Pass (15th Overall) on 6.0 Net Yards per Attempt (16th Overall), and another 111.7 Yards versus the Run (16th Overall) on 4.4 Yards per Carry (28th Overall), while accumulating Forty-Two Sacks (8th Overall), and Twenty-Five Turnovers (9th Overall). Even as injuries have threatened to rain on their parade, the youth movement has continued to carry them with Sophomores Vonn Bell (78 TKL, 4.5 SK, 2 FF, 2 PD) and Sheldon Rankins (26 TKL, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 1 PD) consistently creating havoc, while the elderstatesman of the group, Cameron Jordan (62 TKL, 13.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 INT, 12 PD, 1 TD), has enjoyed arguably his finest season in being selected to his third Pro Bowl. With that said, the Saints enter today’s affair far from full strength, for their number have been dropping like proverbial flies over the past few weeks; Left Guard Andrus Peat (Shin) and Defensive Tackle Tony McDaniel (Leg) were placed on injured reserve this week, while Wideout Brandon Coleman (Neck) also missed Wednesday’s practice with a neck injury, with Tight End Michael Hoomanawanui (Back), Left Tackle Terron Armstead (Thigh), Defensive End Trey Hendrickson (Ankle), Defensive Tackle Sheldon Rankins (Ankle), Cornerback P.J. Williams (Ankle), Cameron Jordan (knee) and Defensive Tackle David Onyemata (Thumb) were limited in the week’s first practice.
Meanwhile, it appears that the planets and moons are in alignment for the Vikings (13-3, 1st in NFC South), who have been faced with the potentiality of never having to leave the friendly confines of U.S. Bank Stadium no matter how far they progress in this Postseason, for their home field will serve as the sight of Super Bowl LII in three weeks. Granted, Mike Zimmer’s charges are the No. Two Seed in the NFC, not the No. One, but given the injury situation at Quarterback, the odds point to Minnesota being the prohibitive favorite to emerge from the conference, making the fact that they’d be enjoying true Home Field Advantage throughout the Playoffs a rare advantage indeed. Of course, they’ve got to handle their business first, which they’ve already done once this season against the Saints, though this group too has changed a good deal since that night in early September, particularly under Center, where Case Keenum (67.6%, 3,547 YDS, 6.78 NY/A, 22 TD, 7 INT) has long since taken over for an injured Sam Bradford. On that day, Keenum stood by on the sideline as his eventual predecessor surgically carved up New Orleans’ Defense 346 Yards and Three Touchdowns on 27-of-32 Passing. However, as fate would have it, Bradford would be placed on Injured Reserve after undergoing a procedure on the same in which he tore his ACL, an injury he has suffered multiple times throughout his career. This thrust Keenum, a 29-Year Old Journeyman now on his third team in four years, into the starting position, which for the first time in his six year career, he doesn’t appear to be struggling with. In fact, he’s relishing in it. Behind a vastly improved Offensive Line, a criminally underrated Receiving Corps, and some exceptional playcalling, the veteran Quarterback has established career-highs in a slew of categories including Completions (325), Attempts (481) Completion Percentage (67.6%), Passing Yards (3.547), Passing Touchdowns (22), Yards per Attempt (7.4), Net Yards per Attempt (6.78), Passer Rating (98.3), and QBR (71.3). Furthermore, he’s continued to improve as he’s gotten more comfortable in this Offense, looking like a Pro Bowler down stretch, completing 70.9% of his Passes for an average of 214.2 Yards per Game, with Eight Touchdowns in comparison to just Two Interceptions during the month of December, in which he’s led his team to a 4-1 record. Hell, if we just presented the statistics for today’s Quarterbacks, you’d be hard-pressed to identify who was who, which is a boon for Quarterback who is set to hit Free Agency (and a substantial raise) in just a few short months. Emerging along with Keenum has been Undrafted Receiver Adam Thielen (91 REC, 1,276 YDS, 4 TD), who became his favored target in the passing game (142 Targets), establishing career-highs in a number of categories as well, including Receptions (91 REC), and Receiving Yards (1,276), in route to receiving his first invitation to the Pro Bowl. Thielen shredded the Saints when they met in the Opener, reeling Nine Catches on Ten Targets for 157 Yards. With that said, one thing that has not changed since the Season Opener has been the play of the Vikings’ Defense, which is every bit as formidable as the Saints will remember. Zimmer and his Staff have put together a tenacious unit that is loaded on all three levels, possessing plenty of size, speed, athleticism, and one helluva meanstreak. On the season, Minnesota ranked tops in the league in both Points Allowed (15.8 P/G) and Total Defense (276.0 Y/G), along with Third Down Percentage (25.2%), including Second Overall against both the Pass (192.4 Y/G) and the Run (83.6 Y/G), all the while relinquishing the fewest Passing Touchdowns in the NFL (13), which is amazing in this pass-happy era of football. In many ways, this group was even more impressive than they were a year ago, when they forced Twenty-Seven Turnovers (scoring Four Touchdowns in the process), and raked in Forty-One Sacks, only to yield fewer yards and points despite significantly fewer of each commodity (19 Turnovers, 37 Sacks). Harrison Smith (78 TKL, 1.5 SK, 5 INT, 12 PD), Anthony Barr (75 TKL, 1.0 SK, 6 PD), Xavier Rhodes (56 TKL, 2 INT, 10 PD), and Everson Griffen (45 TKL, 13.0 SK, 3 FF, 1 PD) were all selected to the Pro Bowl, though in all honesty there could have been many more, with the likes of Erik Kendricks (114 TKL, 1.0 SK, 1 INT, 1 TD, 6 PD) and Danielle Hunter (45 TKL, 7.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 PD) also playing a major role in their success. And speaking of Kendricks, keep and eye on how he and his fellow Linebacker Barr defend the likes of Ingram and Kamara. As we stated earlier, New Orleans’ dynamic duo was held largely in check in their previous encounter with the Vikings, though their collective ability to absolutely wreck a gameplan in the short passing game puts a lot of stress on a team’s Linebackers.