8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Saints -1.5, Over/Under: 53
NFC Superpowers collide in the Twin Cities Sunday Night, as the Minnesota Vikings play host to the surging New Orleans Saints in a rematch of last year’s Playoffs once again from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. If there is one game that the Saints (5-1, 1st in NFC South) had circled on their calendar heading into this campaign, one would have to believe that it was this particular matchup with Vikings, for after all, U.S. Bank Stadium was the place where their 2017 season both began and ended in heartbreaking fashion. Sean Payton’s charges opened the previous term with a 19-29 defeat to the Vikings, before eventually going on a torrid run to capture their first NFC South Title since 2011, before finally falling in the NFC Division Round of the Postseason, a bitter 24-29 loss. New Orleans fell behind early in that one, trailing 0-17 at Halftime, though caught fire in the Second Half where they eventually 24-23 lead with just Twenty-Three Seconds left to play in the Fourth Quarter. However, as secure as that lead may have seemed, it was quickly lost, as Saints’ Rookie Safety Marcus Williams took a terrible angle on Vikings’ Receiver Stefon Diggs, who came down with the football on the sideline, managed to stay in bounds, and race towards the End Zone for a shocking 61-Yard Touchdown. With that fateful meeting behind them, Payton & Co. followed virtually the same script from last year, railing off five straight victories after dropping the Season Opener, in route to once more looking like on the true contenders in the NFC. The Offense remains as high-powered as ever, with the ageless Drew Bress (77.3%, 311.7 Y/G, 7.86 NY/A, 13 TD, 0 INT, 85.5 QBR) continuing his assault on the Record Books in a season in which he has already become the league’s all-time leader in Passing Yards (72,315), while joining the 500-Touchdown Club, becoming just the fourth Quarterback to do so. This Offense is loaded, folks, with Michael Thomas (53 REC, 588 YDS, 11.1 Y/R, 4 TD) developing into an elite Receiver, while the prolific Tailback Tandem of Alvin Kamara (119 Touches, 725 YDS, 6.1 Y/T, 7 TD) and Mark Ingram (32 Touches, 115 YDS, 3.6 Y/T, 2 TD) is back together after the latter finished serving a 4-Game Suspension to begin the campaign. As a unit, the Saints are averaging a robust 34.0 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on 421.6 Total Yards (6th Overall), including 313.3 Yards through the air (6th Overall) on 7.8 Net Yards per Attempt (5th Overall), and another 108.3 Yards on the ground (16th Overall) on 3.9 Yards per Carry (26th Overall). However, when talking about this team, the Offense remains a constant, while the Defense is ever a question mark, even though their maturation and development on that side of the football played a sizable role in their overall success last year. Admittedly, this unit did not get off to the best of starts, relinquishing Forty-Eight Points in the Season Opener, allowing an average of 34.3 Points throughout the first three contests. To their credit, New Orleans has improved incrementally as the schedule as progressed, limiting their last three opponent to 20.0 Points per Game on a respectable 311.0 Total Yards. When we last saw them, they invaded M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore in a hard-fought, slugfest with the Ravens, narrowly escaping with a 24-23 victory, as the home side’s Place Kicker, the typical sure-thing Justin Tucker, shanked an Extra-Point that would have tied the game and sent it to Overtime. This one was significant, folks, for last weekend’s win proved that this team could in fact get into a heavyweight fight and come out victorious; the visitors grinded their way to 339 Total Yards, 134 of that figure via the run on Thirty-Nine Carries, controlling Time of Possession (33:31), and converting on a whopping 4-of-5 Fourth Downs. Against one of the staunchest Defenses in the league, Brees was ruthlessly efficient, completing 22-of-30 Passes for 212 Touchdowns and a pair of Touchdowns, with six different Receivers catching at least Two Passes, as enjoyed his first win over the Ravens, the only team in the NFL whom he had yet to best.
Meanwhile, the Vikings (4-2-1, 1st in NFC North) too have overcome a slow start and only to round into shape, as Mike Zimmer’s charges look to create some distance between themselves and the rests of the competitive NFC North. This was always going to be a bit of a process for Minnesota, who a year after advancing to the NFC Championship Game ultimately decided to make a major change in saying goodbye to their Starting Signal-Caller Case Keenum, and welcoming in Kirk Cousins (70.0%, 308.9 Y/G, 6.43 NY/A, 14 TD, 3 INT, 63.9 QR) with the league’s first fully-guaranteed contract for a Franchise Quarterback. Of course, Cousins isn’t the only new face on this side of the football, for John DeFilippo has replaced Pat Shurmur as the Offensive Coordinator, who has since left to take over the sinking ship that is the New York Giants. To his credit, Cousins has played admirably given the circumstances of getting acclimated to new surroundings with a new playbook, brining a quick-strike, big-play aspect an Offense that was very much a balanced, meticulous machine a year ago. And he’s certainly outplayed Keenum, who has reverted to form while struggling in Denver, leading a Passing Attack that has averaged 308.9 Yards per Game (8th Overall) on 6.4 Net Yards per Attempt (17th Overall). The issue though, as been balance; the Vikings began the term throwing the football all over the proverbial lot, ranking Fifth Overall in Passing Attempts (42.9 A/G) in comparison to just 29th in Rushing Attempts (21.7 A/G), though the health of their Offensive Line and Backfield has had a heavy influence on that. Starting Center Nick Easton has been placed on Injured Reserve with a herniated disk in his neck, while Left Tackle Riley Reiff has missed each of the last two games with a nagging foot injury, while versatile Sophomore Tailback Dalvin Cook (45 Touches, 205 YDS, 4.6 Y/T) has floated in and out of the lineup with a tender Hamstring, with Zimmer likely opting to keep him off the field until after the team’s Bye (Week 10). Granted, a healthy Latavius Murray (69 CAR, 330 YDS, 4.8 Y/C, 3 TD) has helped this Offense get back on track a bit in regards to running the football, but they need to get healthier in the trenches if they truly wish to get back to the workman-like production of their predecessors. During their current 3-Game Winning Streak, Minnesota has averaged 120.0 Yards on the ground, though that figure is a bit misleading due to 195 Yards coming against the hapless Arizona Cardinals. While the Offense continues to live and die on the arm of Cousins, the Defense has surprisingly gone through it’s share of growing pains as well, which is a bit surprising given the consistent dominance that this group has displayed over the past few years (No. One in Scoring Defense and Total Defense in 2017). Thus far, Zimmer’s Defense has allowed 23.6 Points (14th Overall) on 345.8 Total Yards (11th Overall), including 256.1 Yards against the Pass (12th Overall) on 6.9 Net Yards per Attempt (26th Overall), along with 89.7 Yards versus the Run (5th Overall) on 3.7 Yards per Carry (4th Overall). Though they’ve been solid against the Run, the Pass Defense has been another story altogether, as injuries have leveled the playing field to a good degree with the likes of Pro Bowl Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (24 TKL, 1 INT, 5 PD) hampered by an ankle sprain, First Round Pick Mike Hughes (21 TKL, 1 INT, 1 TD, 3 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR) out for the season with a torn ACL, and Pro Bowl Edge Rusher Everson Griffen (6 TL, 1.0 SK, 1 PD) missing the last five games while dealing with a personal matter. While, Griffen is expected to finally make his return this weekend, make no mistake that this Defense is still very much riddled with injuries, with a slew of prominent figures including Linebacker Anthony Barr (Hamstring), Safety Andrew Sendejo (Groin), and Defensive Tackle Linval Joseph (Knee), all expected to miss this meeting with the Saints.