New Orleans visits Minnesota in the weekend’s Divisional Round event. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:40 p.m. ET at U.S. Bank Stadium, the venue for Super Bowl LII. NFL Divisional Round Free Pick: Saints at Vikings.
Minnesota victimized visiting New Orleans in the 2017-18 season opener for both teams. The two teams are largely different from what they looked like in early September. The Vikings (-5, 46) come into the postseason winners of five straight at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Saints have a deadly running back tandem and advanced to the second Sunday of the National League Football postseason with a home win against the Panthers.
Vikings quarterback Case Keenum was the backup to then-starter Sam Bradford in Week #1. And Minnesota was counting on rookie tailback Dalvin Cook to be their bell-cow runner when the 2017 season kicked off. Both Bradford and Cook missed most of the regular season and won’t be available for Sunday afternoons affair versus the Saints.
After the initial start for Keenum in September, a Week #2 loss to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, the Vikings played only 6 teams with winning records. Two of those six came against the same team, the 9-7 Detroit Lions. Of those six games Keenum and his teammates were 4-2. There is not downplaying the success of Keenum and the Vikings offense after he settled in as the team’s No #1 signal-caller. The veteran journeyman registered career highs in completions (325), attempts (481), yards (3,547), touchdowns (22) and passer rating (98.3) and led the team to an 11-3 mark as the starter.
The changes that have transformed the Saints since that Week #1 loss at U.S. Bank came at running back. The “boom and zoom” attack, Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara became quarterback Drew Brees’ best friend. Adrian Peterson was the lead back for the Saints in Week #1 but his past-his-prime performance (6 carries for 18 yards) and his inability to pass block, as well pick up the blitz, led to the team trading him to Arizona.
Brees has a capable receiving corps that includes running back Kamara. The Super Bowl winner has the hands of Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr, Willie Snead and more. The Vikings will be without wide out Brandon Coleman which NFL pundits paint as a key piece to the New Orleans offensive success. However, New Orleans doesn’t lack offensive firepower and as good as Coleman has been at times this season he isn’t the key piece that many portray him to be. Tight end Josh Hill has stepped in to keep opposing defenses honest. The Week #11 injury to Coby Fleener forced head coach Sean Payton to find a capable body in place of Fleener and they have found that, to a large degree, in Hill.
The offensive lines for both teams are veteran units and versed in keeping their quarterback clean in the pocket. The New Orleans O-line did a good job of allowing Brees time to find his receivers against Carolina’s vaunted front seven. The Vikings will do their best to test the mettle of backup left guard Senio Kelemete, with starter Andrus Peat going on the IR.
The regular season third down form for both teams speaks to their strengths and weaknesses, both on offense and defense. The Vikings ranked third in the league in converting third downs on offense (44%). Defensively they were one of the best (25%) at preventing their opponent from converting third downs.
The Saints were the 19th ranked team in the NFL in converting third downs (38%) and 27th on defense (41%).
A big part of both team’s success on Sunday will be keeping the quarterbacks clean. And by most measures the units should accomplish this goal. The Vikings will attempt to free up Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Harrison Smith to assist Everson Griffen in taking Brees off his spot. But the running back and tight end combinations that Payton used offensively were successful a week ago against the Panthers.
The same can be said for the Vikings offensive line versus Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan and company. Allowing Keenum time in the pocket to take execute their “meat and potatoes” rub routes will result in a successful offensive showing.. There will be more than one conversation by Payton and his Saints staff with Sunday’s officials about illegal pick-plays by Vikes’ TE Kyle Rudolph freeing up wide outs Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
A victory in this game will eventually be awarded to the offense that executes the best. Expect to see softer coverage by the Saints with the sole goal of preventing the crossing/rub routes by the Vikings and Minnesota being less aggressive in blitzing Brees in fear he and his receivers will execute too many plays of 20-plus yards.
In the end the first team to 30-points win resulting in a value investment to the OVER in this Sunday NFC Divisional Round matchup.
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NFL Divisional Round Free Pick: Saints at Vikings
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