It’s the postseason, but we’re still chugging along for our Interview with the Enemy series. This week, Ted Glover of Daily Norseman answers 5 quick questions before our wildcard matchup on Sunday: the New Orleans Saints getting a chance to avenge the miracle against the Minnesota Vikings.
For this late in the year, pretty good all things considered. Yes, both Cook and Thielen are expected to play, and with two weeks off Cook should be about as healthy as he’s been since early in the year, hopefully. Also returning to action is backup RB Alexander Mattison, a rookie who’s played very well in relief of Cook. The big injury concerns right now are on the defensive side of the ball, though. LB Eric Kendricks, who is having a hell of a year, went out with a quad injury late in the first half of the Packers game on Monday Night, didn’t play against the Bears in the season finale, and hasn’t practiced all week.
Mackensie Alexander, a really good slot CB, is also out with a knee injury, and his status is very much up in the air. Losing Kendricks would be a huge blow to the defense. He’s a really good cover LB, and is fourth in the entire NFL in passes defended. Alexander out would hurt as well, as he’s been really good in the slot this year. If neither one play, it might be a long day for the Vikings defense.
Finish this sentence: the Vikings will when this game if __________.
They can control the clock running the ball and Kirk Cousins has a good day. When the Vikings offense is at their best, the threat of Dalvin Cook running the ball opens up the passing game, or the threat of an insanely accurate Cousins loosens up the running game. However you slice it, they work well together when they’re on. With a healthy Thielen, Cook, and Stefon Diggs, the Vikings have the weapons to move the ball on the Saints. Yes, the Saints are fourth in the NFL in rushing yards, but give up over four yards a carry. The Vikes need to stay in manageable down and distance on first and second down to keep their entire playobook open. That allows them to be unpredictable, and OC Kevin Stefanski has done a very good job in calling a game most of the year and mixing the run and pass. On defense they have to get off the field on third down, and keep the Saints to field goals as much as possible. It’s stupid to think you’re going to stop the Saints offense, but you can slow them down. The Vikings have a good third down defense, and are a pretty good red zone defense, too. New Orleans will get their yards, but if they can force field goals in the red zone, they have a chance.
Finally, turnovers will be the difference. Both the Vikings (+11) and Saints (+15) are top five in turnover differential this year, so I expect to see a few on Sunday. In a game like this, Minnesota simply can’t afford to lose the turnover battle. An early fumble or interception that could lead to a two score deficit to the Saints on the road, and the Saints could steamroll the Vikes right out of the building. Conversely, if Minnesota can get a couple of early turnovers, turn them into points, and build a 10 or 14 point lead, that’s going to quiet the Superdome and the Vikings will have the advantage.
If you were the Saints, how would you game plan to attack the Minnesota defense this week?.
Throw at Xavier Rhodes until he proves he can stop you. Seems weird to write that, but here we are. The former All-Pro has had a really bad year, and has gone from shutdown corner to a liability in coverage. The Vikes cornerbacks in general have had a rough year, and have been getting beat with a frightening regularity. In the last few weeks, though, Minnesota has started to do a rotation of guys on the outside, from starters Rhodes and Trae Waynes, with more Holton Hill and Mike Hughes in the mix. Collectively, they seem to have played better since this rotation of sorts was implemented, but it’s still the weak link to the defense. If Eric Kendicks doesn’t play, get his replacement, Eric Wilson, in space with Alvin Kamara or old friend Latavius Murray. You’ll win that matchup nine times out of five. Wilson is pretty good in run support, but has given up some big plays through the air.
Which Kirk Cousins will we see on Sunday?
We’ll know within the first 2-3 drives Sunday. When Cousins is on, his body language is confident, his throws are on the money, and the Vikings offense gets into a rhythm. If that happens, you’re in for a dogfight. The narrative on Kirk Cousins is that he doesn’y play well in big games. I hate the narrative, because I think he’s a pretty good quarterback, but it’s there for a reason. When he’s been off, which has generally been in meaningful games...and it doesn’t get more meaningful than the playoffs...his body language looks different. I can’t explain it, but go back and watch the first half of the Denver game, then the second half. It’s there. His throws are way off the mark, and the Vikings offense grinds to a halt. I will say, in his defense, that when he’s ‘bad Kirk’, for lack of a better phrase, the Vikings offensive line is in the process of getting their ass handed to them, and that generally plays a big part of it.
TL;DR: Good Kirk...clean pocket, confident body language, great throws. Bad Kirk...o-line collapsing like the French Army in WW2, weird vibe body language, inaccurate throws. You’ll know within the first 2-3 drives.
What is your prediction for the game? Who wins? Final score?
What I would love to see happen more than almost anything in the world ever: Vikings, 27-24. Imagine the scene. Score tied, less than 30 seconds to go, Vikings have two timeouts on about their 25 or so, Superdome is absolutely INSANE with noise. Cousins chucks a pass deep to Diggs, who is wide open and it looks like Minneapolis Miracle II is unfolding. But at the last minute, Marshon Lattimore comes from nowhere on a slightly underthrown ball and breaks up the pass. There’s contact, yet no call. Vikings fans, in living rooms all over the state (and in suburban St. Louis), are cursing, screaming, and throwing things. But since it’s inside of two minutes, the booth buzzes down to say they’re going to review the play. After five minutes of agony, the call on the field is reversed, and in the most fitting piece of irony one could imagine pass interference is called on the Saints, thanks to the Saints being the reason this awful, terrible rule was implemented in the first place. First down Vikes on the Saints 21. The Vikes run a QB sneak, Cousins kneels in the middle of the field at the 23, they milk the clock down to three seconds, and call a timeout. Dan Bailey trots out and calmly kicks the game winning 40 yard field goal as time expires. The Will Lutz demons can now rest. In the off-season, Sean Peyton demands the rule he wanted to be changed so badly gets changed back to the way it was.
What will happen: I honestly don’t know. I do believe the game will be much closer than most everyone thinks for a few reasons. For one, as I alluded in my five questions to you that you were kind enough to answer for The Daily Norseman, Minnesota has played the Saints about as well as anyone has the last three times they’ve met, and their own mistakes played a huge role in their one loss. Secondly, the Vikings are playing the ‘disrespect’ card to the hilt. The NFL published a playoff commercial with a bunch of clips in it, and the Vikings (and Eagles) were left out. Then you had Cam Jordan’s comments (not necessarily untrue, but still) about Kirk Cousins on the Rich Eisen show earlier this week. Third, there’s a rumor getting some legs that if the Vikes get embarrassed Sunday Mike Zimmer will be fired, and all his players, almost to a man, say they love playing for him. Finally, no one outside of Minnesota...and a good portion of Vikings fans, if we’re being honest, believe the Vikes will win this game. The ‘no one believes in us’ angle with a beloved coach possibly coaching for his job can be a powerful motivators.
I think the Saints can blow out the Vikings much like the Eagles blew them out in the NFC Championship a couple years ago, and a lot of people think that’s going to happen. Minnesota’s secondary is questionable, Eric Kendricks might not play, and Kirk Cousins’ reputation in big games precedes himself.
I also think the VIkings legitimately have one of the 2-3 most talented rosters in the NFL and are capable of beating anyone, anywhere, in any situation. If they can play to the level we’ve seen on both sides of the ball at points throughout the year, they’re going to win this football game and shock a lot of people. But can they do that, though? Inconsistency has dogged this entire team all year, and it really manifests itself in big moments, it seems. At some point, you have to think they would decide that, big moment or not, it’s finally time to play a complete game when it matters most. And the Vikings really shouldn’t have any pressure on them; no one expects them to win, and in fact, a lot of people think they’ll get their ass kicked. Let it all hang out, man. Play with nothing to lose and let’s see what happens. I think a lot of people will be surprised.
Thank-you, Ted, for taking the time to answer our questions. Saints fans, make sure you check out Ted and the work his guys are doing over at Daily Norseman. You can follow Daily Norseman on Twitter @DailyNorseman, Ted @purplebuckeye, and of course you can follow me @ChrisDunnells.