The Minnesota Vikings will take much of the same cast to the playoffs that helped them reach the NFC championship game two years ago, with even some upgrades in certain spots.
They're still an afterthought in this top-heavy postseason field, though, forced to enter as the sixth seed without the benefit of any home games. Consider that underdog mentality another ingredient in the formula coach Mike Zimmer, his staff and players will be concocting this week to try to knock off New Orleans in the wild-card round on Sunday.
The NFL even left the Vikings out of an official postseason hype video for social media that was released Monday, an omission that did not go unnoticed at team headquarters.
“I don’t think anybody thinks that we can win this game,” said Zimmer, who has taken the Vikings to the playoffs three time in six years. “So go in there, and we slug it out. All I really care about is that 53 guys believe.”
The Saints (13-3) were a consensus eight-point favorite in the betting lines on Monday, sporting the best record for a No. 3 seed since 2011. That season, just like this one, Green Bay and San Francisco got the first-round byes, and New Orleans was a 13-win No. 3 seed. That team, just like this one eight years later, was directed by the indefatigable Drew Brees, who's now the all-time NFL leader in career touchdown passes among so many other accolades.
“It’s hard to trick him, because he reads things so quickly," Zimmer said.
If anyone in the league can do it, it's probably Zimmer, whose defense held Brees and the Saints scoreless for 43-plus minutes in their divisional-round matchup two seasons ago before the rally that preceded the “Minneapolis Miracle” touchdown pass the Vikings needed on the last play to win.
Th ingeir pass coverage, particularly on league-leading receiver Michael Thomas, will have to be at its best. With cornerback Xavier Rhodes grinding through a rough season, two years after he was an All-Pro, the Vikings have been as vulnerable in the secondary as ever since Zimmer arrived.
“We have the same mindset that we’ve had all year: being aggressive, attacking the ball whether it’s in the run game or the pass game,” safety Anthony Harris said.
With a boost from backup defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly, the Vikings racked up 15 sacks over their last four games. That pass rush was a factor in the 13 turnovers forced during that span, too. To succeed against Brees, generating pressure from the front four without a heavy blitz package will be critical.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The pass protection has been vastly improved from last year, but it fell apart against Green Bay a week ago, the last game that carried meaning for the Vikings and their postseason positioning. Keeping Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan away from quarterback Kirk Cousins will be a top priority for offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and his staff.
Kicker Dan Bailey rather quietly finished fourth in the league in field goal percentage (93.1), making 19 such kicks in a row over the last nine games. Though three of his four missed extra points this season came during that stretch, Bailey has finally stabilized a critical position that had given the Vikings fits throughout Zimmer's tenure. The holding by punter Britton Colquitt and snapping by rookie Austin Cutting must get some of the credit, too.
Defensive end Everson Griffen had a solid comeback season from the five-game hiatus he had to take last year for mental health treatment, but only one of his eight sacks came in December. The 32-year-old will be an offseason cut candidate for salary-cap relief, given his age and the emergence of Odenigbo.
The Vikings held their top two running backs, Dalvin Cook (shoulder) and Alexander Mattison (ankle), out of the last two games to rest injuries for the playoffs, but all indications are they'll be good to go to play the Saints. Linebacker Eric Kendricks (quadriceps) was the only other player held out of the final regular-season game against Chicago for injury.
2 — The number of victories for the Vikings in their last 18 road games in the playoffs. Though seven of the franchise's nine head coaches and hundreds of players have taken part, that's a span of 45 years. The only such wins were in the wild-card round at New York after the 1997 season and at Green Bay after the 2004 season.
The road team won three of four wild card round games in the NFL last year and two of four the previous season.
Re-establishing Cook as the dual threat he was during the first half of the season would go a long way toward taking pressure off Cousins and setting up a deep run through the playoffs. The Pro Bowl pick finished with 1,654 yards from scrimmage in 14 games, still good for seventh in the league, but in his last six games he averaged well under four yards per rush.
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