The New Orleans Saints host the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the NFC playoffs this Sunday afternoon. The 13-3 Saints are tied for the best record in the conference but come into the postseason as the number three seed by virtue of lost tiebreakers against the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers. New Orleans is still considered one of the Super Bowl favorites though, in part due to a balanced offensive attack that has been among the league's best over the last part of the season. The Saints have averaged 28.6 points per game this season, third best in the league. They have scored at least 30 points an NFL-best eleven times, hitting the mark in six of the last seven games.
Minnesota comes into the playoffs allowing only 19 points per contest, fifth best in the league, and have surrendered 30 points just twice this season. The Vikings have feasted off the mistakes of their opponents, causing 31 turnovers. The Saints have turned the ball over just 8 times this season though, which is the lowest mark in the NFL. Here is how the two units match up against one another in this postseason showdown.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. VIKINGS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans comes into the postseason with the league's 7th ranked passing offense. Quarterback Drew Brees has been playing as sharp as he ever has since returning from thumb surgery. Brees has averaged 295 yards per game in the ten full contests he's played while completing 74.3% of his throws with 27 touchdown passes and just 4 interceptions. The focal point of Brees' deadly accuracy is fourth year wideout Michael Thomas, who led the league with 1,725 receiving yards and an NFL-record 149 receptions while scoring 9 touchdowns. Thomas has proven nearly unstoppable in short and intermediate routes. He had ten games of at least 100 yards and caught 8 or more passes thirteen times this season despite defenses focused on containing him.
Tight end Jared Cook has been a lethal receiving compliment to Thomas, catching 43 passes for 705 yards and 9 scores. Cook has been particularly productive over the last half of the year, making defenses pay for overguarding Thomas. Running back Alvin Kamara, who is second on the team with 81 receptions (for 533 yards), is as good out of the backfield as any back in the NFL. The Saints have gotten little consistency from their other wideouts, although Tre'Quan Smith has become a bigger part of the offense in recent weeks. Smith (18-234 yards, 5 touchdowns) was hampered by an ankle injury most of the year after a promising start but has come up with some key catches down the stretch and scored 3 touchdowns in the last four games.
New Orleans protects their quarterback as good as any offensive line in the league. Brees and Teddy Bridgewater have been sacked only 24 times, with 11 of those coming in two games earlier in the season. Offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead have silenced some of league's top pass rushers, while rookie center Erik McCoy has been a key to fine interior pass protection.
Minnesota's 15th ranked pass defense has allowed five 300-Yd passers this season, giving up an average of 234 yards/game. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 66% of their throws and 23 touchdown passes in 2019. The Vikings have intercepted 17 passes though, and have one of the league's most opportunistic secondaries. Safeties Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, and Anthony Harris have combined for 11 of those picks, and are dangerously effective at reading the quarterback. Smith is one of the better strong safeties in the league and will face a big matchup against Jared Cook. Minnesota cornerbacks will face an even bigger challenge against Michael Thomas though. Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes, and Mike Hughes are a quality trio of corners and do a nice job of limiting big plays. Waynes and Rhodes have given up 9 touchdowns and 1,505 yards to wideouts this season, allowing quarterbacks to complete 77% of their targets against them.
The defensive backs are aided greatly by pressure generated by the Minnesota front seven. The Vikings have 48 sacks this season, collapsing pass pockets mainly from the edge. Defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are extremely disruptive, and have combined for 22.5 sacks and 69 pressures. Ifeadi Odenigbo (7 sacks) and Stephen Weatherly provide quality edge depth while tackles Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen, and Jaleel Johnson push the interior pocket. The Minnesota linebackers are effective blitzers when called upon, but are much more dangerous in pass coverage. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr can each take on backs in coverage, most tight ends, and even pick up a wideout through short zones.
Matchup to Watch:
OT's Terron Armstead/Ryan Ramczyk vs. DE's Danielle Hunter/Everson Griffen
Armstead, Ramczyk, Hunter, and Griffen are All-Pro caliber players in a matchup that will dictate how effective the Saints passing attack will be. The New Orleans tackles have completely shut down a number of talented players this season, but each must be at the top of his game to contend with the talented Vikings rush.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. VIKINGS RUN DEFENSE
The Saints 16th ranked rushing attack averages 108 yards per outing. New Orleans comes at opposing defenses with an effective 1-2 running back punch of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. Kamara, who has 797 rushing yards and five touchdowns, has had a quiet season by his standards. Fully recovered from midseason leg injuries though, the dynamic third year back has four rushing scores in the last two games and is again exhibiting elite burst in the open field. Former Viking Murray, who has two 100-Yd games and has run for 637 yards and 5 touchdowns, is a punishing runner between the tackles and has underrated open field speed. Taysom Hill provides a legitimate threat on the ground for defenses, but has actually been more effective as a receiver this season with 19 receptions for 234 yards and six scores.
The Saints offensive line has imposed their will over defenses all year long, allowing New Orleans to control games. The team is most effective running inside, where superior blocking allows their backs to get to the second level quickly. Guards Larry Warford and Andrus Peat each returned from injuries last week, although Nick Easton played well in place of Peat over his six game absence. The line not only gets good push at the point of attack, but is adept at opening cutback lanes for Kamara and Murray.
The Vikings have given up an average of 108 yards per game on the ground, ranking 13th, but have allowed just 8 rushing scores. Minnesota tackles Joseph, Stephen, and Johnson are big bodied defenders that are tough to move inside. Their skill allows linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks to run free and make plays. The Viking safeties are solid in run support, but Kendricks and Barr are excellent sideline to sideline defenders that are in on nearly every play. The Vikings have been vulnerable to the run down the stretch though, allowing an average of 136 yards/game over the last six contests and getting pushed around at the point of attack.
Matchup to Watch:
Kamara/Murray vs. Kendricks/Barr
Kendricks, Minnesota's leading tackler, is struggling with a quad injury suffered in the season finale. He'll likely be in the lineup, but his full mobility will be something to watch. While New Orleans will need to win the line of scrimmage for their backs, the must-see matchup will be Kamara and Murray in the open field against the versatile Vikings LB's. If effective as both runners and receivers, Minnesota will be forced to move a safety closer to the line of scrimmage, opening up space for the Saints receivers and slowing the Vikings pass rush.
Brees, Thomas, and Cook have been spectacular in the passing game over the stretch run. The overall balance of the New Orleans offense, however, is predicated on the effectiveness of their versatile running backs and dominating offensive line over the course of the season.
What is the biggest key for New Orleans offensive success against the Vikings defense?
This poll is closed
Michael Thomas/Tre'quan Smith vs. Trae Waynes/Xavier Rhodes
Jared Cook vs. Harrison Smith/Vikings LB's
Alvin Kamara/Latavius Murray vs. Eric Kendricks/Anthony Barr
Terron Armstead/Ryan Ramczyk vs. Danielle Hunter/Everson Griffen
McCoy/Peat/Warford vs. Joseph/Stephen/Johnson