2018 NFC Divisional Playoffs: Three things to watch in Saints-Vikings
To call Sunday's NFC Divisional Playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings a rematch is a bit misleading.
The teams facing off this weekend are quite different from the squads that took to the field on September 11 in what was a 29-19 Vikings win.
Leading that Vikings win were quarterback Sam Bradford and rookie running back Dalvin Cook. Both have since been lost for the remainder of the campaign with injuries.
Case Keenum took over for Bradford and has been remarkable in leading the Vikings (13-3) to an NFC North title. The Vikings have used Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon to fill in for Cook, who had 127 rushing yards in last time out.
The Saints (12-5) had former Vikings running back Adrian Peterson as their starter, but he was traded to the Arizona Cardinals after four games. That opened the door for rookie Alvin Kamara, who is a favorite to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Just because the Vikings won handily in Week 1, it does not mean Sunday's playoff game will have a similar result.
CAN THE SAINTS RUN THE BALL?
The Vikings, who had the NFL's best defense and ranked second in rush defense, held the Saints to 60 rushing yards in Week 1 as Peterson had only 18 yards on six carries. Kamara rushed the ball seven times and Mark Ingram had six attempts for 17 yards. The Saints had a hard time establishing the run early on, limited to 81 yards in a Week 2 loss to the New England Patriots.
But the Saints finished the regular season with the NFL's fifth-ranked rush offense after over 129 yards per game. Ingram and Kamara were selected to the Pro Bowl after they tallied more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. Ingram led the team in rushing with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns while Kamara added 728 yards and eight scores on the ground.
Both were shut down by the Carolina Panthers last week as Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 376 yards and two scores. The Saints can win -- and have done so -- with Brees carrying the team, but they will have a much better shot at pulling off the upset if they can get Ingram and Kamara going.
WHO WILL WIN THE BATTLE ON THIRD DOWN?
The Vikings ranked either first or second in most team defensive stats, including on third down. Minnesota allowed opposing offenses to convert just 25.3 per cent of penultimate downs, the best in the NFL.
The #Vikings allowed teams to convert just 25.3% of their third downs this season, the best rate of any defense in the NFL. And it doesn't stop there... h/t @OptaJerry#NOvsMINpic.twitter.com/043FXyeWLS-- Omnisport US News (@OmnisportUS) January 11, 2018
Despite having the NFL's second-ranked offense, the Saints were surprisingly pedestrian on third down -- converting just 38 per cent of the time to sit 19th in the league.
Minnesota's offense, conversely, was third-best at 44 per cent. The Saints' defense was tied for sixth-worst in allowing teams to convert 41 per cent of their third-down chances. That tied them with the Oakland Raiders (6-10), the Cincinnati Bengals (7-9) and the Cleveland Browns (0-16).
WILL THE STAGE BE TOO BIG FOR KEENUM?
Keenum is in his fifth NFL season, but 2017 was the first year in which he started more than nine games. Sunday will be his first playoff game.
The former Houston Texans and Los Angeles Rams quarterback stepped in beautifully for Bradford and set career highs with 3,547 yards and 22 touchdown passes. He threw just seven interceptions and was in the MVP conversation.
As good as he was during the regular season, the playoffs can be a different story. Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has to devise a game plan that can instill Keenum's confidence early to keep the 29-year-old quarterback calm.