New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET on Fox
SAINTS AT A GLANCE
Key player: Receiver Ted Ginn ended up being a very nice fit for the Saints as a free-agent addition. New Orleans has to assume Michael Thomas won’t have a huge game if he’s shadowed by Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, an All-Pro pick who has wiped out No. 1 receivers all season. That means Ginn will be on the spot. Ginn has been a key piece; when he hits some big plays the Saints usually do well. Ginn has played 16 games including playoffs this season. In 11 Saints wins, he averaged 64.6 yards with five touchdowns. In five losses he averaged 38.2 yards and didn’t score once. Given that Thomas has a really tough matchup, Ginn must make some plays.
Why they’ll win: Let’s get this out of the way: Case Keenum has had a fine season, and there’s no evidence that he will suddenly turn into a pumpkin. However, if you like the Saints in this game it’s because of the quarterback matchup. It’s hard to look at “Drew Brees vs. Case Keenum” and not give the Saints an enormous edge. Brees wasn’t relied upon as heavily this season but was as good as ever, and played very well last week when the Panthers took away New Orleans’ running game. All of the NFC teams have plenty of strengths, but only one has a quarterback who is a lock to make the Hall of Fame.
Why they’ll lose: The Vikings already handled the Saints once. That came in Week 1. The final score was 29-19, but anyone who remembers the game understands it wasn’t that close. It’s true that what you see from a team in early September has little resemblance to what they are in January. “It’s night and day,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said, according to the New Orleans Advocate. “You’re still trying to find yourself, you’re still trying to establish your identity, so that feels like ages and ages ago.” However, it’s also fair to wonder if the Saints just don’t match up well against the Vikings, particularly against Minnesota’s defense. The Vikings are capable of shutting down many offenses in the NFL, and maybe the Saints are no exception.
Keep in mind: The Vikings allow very little to running backs, particularly in the passing game. Minnesota allowed just 499 receiving yards to running backs, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, which was second best in the NFL. The 1,095 rushing yards allowed to backs was also second best in the NFL. The Saints use Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara extensively, as runners and receivers, and it won’t be easy for them to find production.
VIKINGS AT A GLANCE
Key player: Safety Harrison Smith is one of the NFL’s best players. He was an All-Pro pick this season, and should get defensive player of the year consideration. He does a bit of everything for the Vikings defense, which is crucial against a diverse Saints offense. He’s particularly important on third down, when the Vikings are dominant. Minnesota’s 25 percent third-down conversions allowed is the best mark in the NFL since at least 1991 according to Vikings PR. It was seven percent better than any other defense this season. When the Saints face third down, keep an eye on Smith.
Why they’ll win: The Vikings do a fantastic job of protecting the football. The Vikings offense lost only six fumbles, and only six NFL teams lost fewer fumbles this season. As a team they threw eight interceptions, the second-best mark in the NFL. The Vikings understand that when you have a defense that is first in the NFL in points and yards allowed, you don’t need to be risky on offense. One way the Vikings could get upset is if the Saints win the turnover battle, but the Vikings have barely turned it over this season.
Why they’ll lose: It’s hard to pick any weakness. They’ve lost once since Oct. 1, and that was a one-score loss at a good Panthers team. The defense has allowed 10 or fewer points in five of their last seven games. The offense has a good pass-run balance and doesn’t beat itself with mistakes. The quarterback matchup looms, because it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Drew Brees simply outplayed Case Keenum. And the Saints don’t have many question marks either. But if the Vikings lose, it will be because they got outplayed by a very good Saints team, not because they have some fatal flaw.
Keep in mind: The Vikings are trying to do two things that have never been done: play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, and bring a Super Bowl title to Minnesota. Vikings fans anticipate the worst, but hope this time around won’t bring another playoff heartbreak. The Vikings’ last playoff win was at the end of the 2009 season. They’ve had just one playoff win since January of 2005. A history of postseason disappointment doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with this roster, but as we saw with the Kansas City Chiefs last week, it can rear its ugly head at the worst time.
– – – – – – –