The Vikings are back in the playoffs for the first time since their unlikely sprint to the NFC Championship Game. That path included a meeting with the New Orleans Saints and a stunning finish that ripped the hearts out of Saints fans (and Marcus Williams) and is now known as the Minneapolis Miracle.
A lot has changed since then. The Saints have again lost in the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion, and the Vikings spent last year's postseason at home. Kirk Cousins will get his first postseason taste of this matchup since joining the Vikings via free agency in 2018, and he'll welcome the return of running back Dalvin Cook, an essential part of the Vikings' eighth-ranked scoring offense. Without Cook, the Vikings have lost two straight and their offense has looked like a shell of what it was with Cook in the fold.
New Orleans is near its final form, boasting the most prolific receiver in a single season in NFL history and a defense that stands up to its opponents at every level. There's an added bonus, too: These Saints are out to prove they should have been the ones celebrating with the George Halas Trophy.
Will the Saints earn revenge? Or will it be another bitter end to a season that saw its final game played against the men in purple?
New Orleans suffered two key departures on the defensive line late in the season when Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins were both lost to injury. Their absences at least slightly diminish the Saints' pass rush, which is tied for ninth in the league in quarterback pressure percentage at 28.3 and ranks third in sacks with 51. That should weaken New Orleans' efforts in that department, in theory, but the Saints still managed to record seven sacks in their final two weeks.
So, the pass rush is still potent enough. That's excellent for the Saints, because the Vikings are seventh worst in the NFL in QB pressure percentage (30.8 percent). They've only allowed 28 sacks and 87 hurries, though and their time to hurry sits at 2.85. This means most pressures are coming from blocking disadvantages, not in the more typical situations, which makes their job even more important against a Saints defense that blitzes at the eighth-highest rate in the NFL (32.9 percent). That also means the Saints will likely get more opportunities to force mistakes in the passing game.
What could ultimately win this game, though, is New Orleans' run defense. Bottling up Dalvin Cook is a must if the Saints want to own an advantage when it doesn't possess the ball. New Orleans has shown it can do so, boasting the NFL's No. 4 rushing defense and allowing just 91.3 yards per game on the ground. Cook is also playing in his first game since Dec. 15, meaning he'll have a little rust to shake off but will also be well-rested for the challenge ahead of him. New Orleans boasts the No. 4 rushing defense, allowing just 91.3 yards per game on the ground. The Saints have allowed just 12 rushing touchdowns all season, tied for ninth best in the NFL. Cook, meanwhile, has 13 scores on the ground. Minnesota is undoubtedly better with Cook (and Alexander Mattison) involved, though, so the Vikings will likely go as Cook goes. It begins with the run for the Vikings, which should be priority No. 1 for them -- and stopping him should be priority No. 1 for the Saints.
This is covered below in the "Matchup to Watch", but Friday's news doesn't help their cause and just adds even more pressure to Minnesota's back end. They have to contend with Michael Thomas, the NFL's new single-season receptions record owner, and they'll have to do so without both Mackensie AlexanderandMike Hughes. The latter landed on injured reserve Friday, while Alexander was ruled out, and Mike Zimmer didn't sound pleased about the status of either, largely deflecting questions related to them Friday.
Zimmer likely knows what he's now up against. Xavier Rhodes will have to find a way to handle Thomas in one-on-one situations if Zimmer chooses to send frequent pressure. It's probably his best defensive path to success, with the hope his two stud safeties can cover up some of the weaknesses on the back end while his ferocious front seven attempts to get after Drew Brees. But if Brees and Sean Payton adjust (which they likely will do), it could be a clinic on how to pick apart a defense.
The Vikings sent out a distress signal on Friday and received help in the form of former Minnesota DB Marcus Sherels, who fittingly was last with the Saints. Perhaps he could provide a tiny bit of intel, but it likely won't be enough to affect the game. They'll instead need him to play his best ball of his career in order to try to make up the gaps left by the injuries to Alexander and Hughes.
Matchup to Watch
But what the Vikings might need to stress over is their cornerback play, especially after the Friday news mentioned above. Rhodes has had a rough year filled with well-publicized struggles. He ranks last in opposing completion percentage above expectation among all corners in the NFL at plus-18.4 percent. That means passes that aren't expected to be completed to targets with Rhodes as the nearest defender are finding themselves completed much more often than they are with any other defender nearest in the entire league.
This is a weakness. And though the Saints don't boast the deepest receiving corps, they can be counted on to go after Rhodes. Without Hughes and Alexander, it's essentially a guarantee, meaning Rhodes is going to have to play his best of 2019 to give Minnesota a legitimate chance.
These Saints will need to overcome Minnesota's defensive front, but this is the No. 3 scoring offense in the NFL. New Orleans hung 46 on a 49ers defense that had an even better attack than Minnesota's at the time. They're equipped to handle it, and with an improved defense (even with injuries considered) and the home-field advantage of the Superdome, they should come away with this one.