The last two weeks have felt like an eternity waiting for the Vikings first playoff game. Now, that the Divisional Round is upon us, as so to is the most anticipated Vikings games since, well let’s just not talk about it. This game versus the Saints might just be the Vikings toughest test on their road to the Super Bowl. So, let’s breakdown this much anticipated game, and see which team will have the advantage come Sunday afternoon.
Much like every other NFL game, the quarterback matchup might very well determine the outcome of the game. While Case Keenum has had a very strong season, and has proven himself to be much more than just a backup quarterback, the tasks of outplaying Drew Brees might just be too tall. Brees’s long history of playoff success will be a huge asset to the Saints as they try to neutralize both the Vikings defense, and what will be a ruckus Vikings crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Running Backs: Saints
There is no question that the Saints two-headed monster of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram will be a difficult challenge for the Vikings defense. The two backs have combined for 1,852 rushing yards, at 5.3 yards per carry, along with 139 catches for another 1,242 yards, and 25 total TDs. For the Vikings, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have done a superb job at replacing Dalvin Cook. This combination is much improved on the Matt Asiata and McKinnon combo of years past, but still doesn’t quite matchup with what the Saints bring on the other side of the field.
Both the Vikings and Saints feature an elite WR1 in Adam Thielen and Michael Thomas, and both receivers will have tough matchups against a lockdown corner on the other side of the ball. I view these two as a wash. After that is where the Vikings gain their real advantage. The only other quality receiver that the Saints have is deep-ball threat Ted Ginn, who will have a very difficult time getting anything going against the Vikings defense that is #1 in the NFL at not allowing big plays. On the other hand, the Vikings bring Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph to the table. Both players can stretch the field during drives, and are nightmares for opposing defenses in the Red-Zone, having combined for 16 TDs this season.
Offensive Line: Saints
The play of the Vikings O-Line has been a real surprise this season, and I believe is the biggest reason for the Vikings jump from 8-8 in 2016, to 13-3 in 2017. They have done a quality job at both establishing the line of scrimmage for the run game, and protecting Case Keenum in the pocket. However, as good as the Vikings O-Line has been this season, the Saints O-Line has been great. They have been an underrated driving force in the Saints run game, having allowed their backs to be stuffed at the line of scrimmage a league low 15% of time. They have also done an excellent job protecting Drew Brees, having allowed the second fewest sacks in the NFL this season.
Defensive Line: Vikings
Both the Saints and the Vikings feature quality pass rushes, having accumulated 42 and 37 sacks respectively. Both are lead by a standout defensive end in Cameron Jordan and Everson Griffen, who are tied for 4th in the NFL at 13 sacks a piece. Where the Vikings gain the advantage is in stopping the run. The Vikings allowed just 3.7 yards per attempt, which was 5th fewest in 2017, while the Saints allowed 4.4 yards per attempt, which ranked 26th. When you look at home and road splits, the Vikings are allowing just 2.8 yards per attempts at home, while the Saints are allowing 4.6 yards per attempt on the road.
This is an area of the field where I see the Vikings having a big edge over the Saints. As I mentioned before, the Vikings are a much better team at stopping the run than the Saints are, and a lot of that is due to the teams’ linebackers. The Saints will feature a lot more three linebacker sets than the Vikings, who usually put just two on the field in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Of the two units, the Vikings linebackers will surely face the bigger test, having to corral Kamara and Ingram out of the Saints backfield.
It is no question that the matchups most people are excited to see on Sunday is how well do Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore do against Michael Thomas and Adam Thielen respectively. Both corners have the ability to neutralize the opposing teams greatest receiving threat. While the Saints secondary is much improved, their 7.0 yards allowed per pass attempt ranks 16th in the NFL. This is a far cry from the Vikings 6.0 yards allowed per pass attempt, which is tied for 1st. The big difference maker will be Harrison Smith, who might just be the best player on either team.
Special Teams: Saints
Both Will Lutz and Kai Forbath are similar kickers in terms of leg strength, as both have season long field-goals of 53 yards. They also both average 63.5 yards per kickoff, which is tied for 9th in the NFL. Both kickers are about the same in field-goal accuracy, but Will Lutz takes the nod as he is much more reliable on extra points having converted on 96% of his attempts over the last 2 seasons, compared to Forbath’s 85%. In the punting game, the Saints’ Thomas Morstead averages almost 5 more yards per punt than Ryan Quigley. Both punters are excellent at pinning the opposing team inside their own 20, as the Vikings didn’t give up a touchback on a punt all season, while the Saints only allowed 2. In the return game, the Saints have an advantage on kick returns with Alvin Kamara as their electric return man. However, on punt returns the Saints struggled all season averaging just 6.4 yards per return, while the Vikings where lead by sure handed punt returner Marcus Sherels who’s 9.5 yards per return ranked 7th in the NFL.
All in all, this seems like it will be an even keeled matchup between two of the best remaining teams in the NFL. Both teams feature talented players on both sides of the ball, and the winner of this game will surely be the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.