Saints Eyeing Up the Enemy: Minnesota Vikings
The New Orleans Saints hope to give their fans a 2020 Christmas gift when they host a longtime postseason nemesis on Christmas Day in Week 16 of the NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings. It will be the 36th meeting between the Saints and Vikings all-time, which includes five playoff showdowns, with Minnesota holding a 23-12 advantage in the series, including a 4-1 record against the Saints in the postseason. The Vikings also have a 9-8 record against the Saints in New Orleans, site of this holiday clash, where the Saints have just a 1-2 record in the playoffs against their conference rivals. Minnesota has snuffed out the Saints chances for a second Super Bowl championship in two of the last three seasons in the final seconds of regulation or overtime.
The Vikings defeated the Saints on January 14, 2018, during a divisional-round matchup in Minnesota 29-24 when WR Stefon Diggs took advantage of a blown coverage and missed tackle to score a game-winning 61-Yd touchdown reception on the game's final play. Last season, Minnesota marched into New Orleans and upset the heavily favored Saints in the 1st round of the playoffs, 26-20 in overtime. Head coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees are 5-4 against Minnesota, 3-2 at home, since their arrival to New Orleans in 2006, including a 31-28 dramatic home victory in overtime of the 2010 NFC Championship Game that sent the Saints to their only Super Bowl.
The Vikings look to control the NFC Central in 2020 with a balanced offensive attack and a revamped defense. Head coach Mike Zimmer, who worked with Sean Payton on Bill Parcells’ coaching staff with the Dallas Cowboys from 2003 to 2005, saw a decline in his defensive unit over the last two seasons and aggressively made changes to the squad this offseason. Today we look at Minnesota's offseason changes and how the Saints may match-up in this crucial NFC holiday battle.
2019 Record: 10-6 (2nd; NFC Central)
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (7th season; 57-38-1 record, 3 playoff appearances)
2019 Offensive Statistics
- 25.4 points/game (8th in the NFL)
- Total Yards = 16th
- Passing Yards = 23rd
- Rushing Yards = 6th
2019 Defensive Statistics
- 18.9 points/game (5th)
- Total Yards = 14th
- Passing Yards = 15th
- Rushing Yards = 13th
Offseason Losses: Stefon Diggs (WR), Laquon Treadwell (WR), Josh Kline (G), Everson Griffen (DE), Stephen Weatherly (DE), Linval Joseph (DT), Xavier Rhodes (CB), Trae Waynes (CB), Mackenzie Alexander (CB), Andrew Sendejo (S), Jayron Kearse (S)
Offseason Additions: Tajae Sharpe (WR), Anthony Zettel (DE), Michael Pierce (DT), Justin Jefferson (WR-Rookie), Jeff Gladney (CB-Rookie), Ezra Cleveland (OT-Rookie), Cam Dantzler (CB-Rookie), D.J. Wonnum (DE-Rookie), James Lynch (DT-Rookie), Troy Dye (LB-Rookie)
Minnesota's QB Kirk Cousins answered some of his critics by finally playing well and winning some enormous games last season. Cousins threw for his lowest total as a starter, 3,603 yards, but managed the game better by avoiding critical turnovers (just 6 interceptions) while throwing 26 touchdowns and completing 69% of his passes. He lost a dangerous weapon when Minnesota traded WR Stefon Diggs to the Bills, but the team expects their 22nd overall pick, WR Justin Jefferson, to quickly step into a starting role. The Vikings also still have one of the league's best in WR Adam Thielen, along with a dangerous and athletic TE tandem of Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. that create matchup advantages for Cousins.
Minnesota attacked defenses with an active ground game in 2020 led by fourth-year RB Dalvin Cook, who picked up 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns while earning his first Pro Bowl. The balanced attack helped an improved offensive line protect their quarterback better, cutting down on Cousins' sacks from 81 over the previous two years to just 28 last year.
The Vikings defense lost five starters and a total of eight contributors who were responsible for eight turnovers and 15 sacks last season. Minnesota still has a disruptive stud upfront with DE Danielle Hunter, two Pro Bowlers at the second level in LB Anthony Barr and LB Eric Kendricks, and two playmakers on the back end with S Harrison Smith and S Anthony Harris along with some developing young players on the defensive line. The Minnesota defense sacked opposing passers 48 times last season and 50 in 2018, with their defensive line dominating play and allowing Kendricks and Barr more freedom to roam and make plays.
Only three teams forced more turnovers than the Vikings in 2019, but some crucial coverage lapses led to revamping their cornerback position. Minnesota used the 31st pick of the 1st round on CB Jeff Gladney then nabbed another in the 3rd round in Dantzler, who they hope can combine with CB Mike Hughes to fortify their coverage. The Vikings will be challenged to replace the Pro Bowl production of Griffen at defensive end, but have a promising young group of defensive tackles to go along with Hunter.
Saints QB Drew Brees has completed over 72% of his passes with 11 touchdown passes and just 3 interceptions during his career against the Vikings but was sacked 3 times and under constant pressure from the Minnesota front during their playoff loss last January. The normally formidable New Orleans offensive line had a poor outing that day and will be rechallenged by the Vikings front seven and Zimmer and his staff's unique game planning.
New Orleans RB Alvin Kamara has scored 4 touchdowns in four career meetings against Minnesota but has been largely contained and averaged just 68 total yards per game in those contests. They have also limited the impact of New Orleans WR Michael Thomas in those last four matchups, managing 24 total receptions but an average of just 70 yards in those outings and being held without a touchdown three times. The Saints will need big performances from their offensive stars to take the pressure off Brees to have success, similar to the spectacular outing from Taysom Hill in last year's playoff loss.
The New Orleans defense is one of the league's best against the run but must contain Cook and the Minnesota running game better than they did in that playoff loss. They must control the line of scrimmage and tie up Minnesota blockers to allow defenders like LB Demario Davis a free path to Cook in the open field. Saints CB Janoris Jenkins did a terrific job shutting down Diggs last January.
Still, fellow CB Marshon Lattimore had an off day, and the Vikings exposed New Orleans coverage deficiencies at the other cornerback spots late in that game. The Saints must generate pressure upfront from DE Cameron Jordan, DE Marcus Davenport, and DT Sheldon Rankins to pressure Cousins into mistakes and allow the Saints defensive backs to be more aggressive.
This Christmas Day showdown between two NFC contenders could have huge playoff implications for both teams. Minnesota has ruined the Saints' championship dreams four times in their franchise history, including last year. In this crucial conference battle, New Orleans could be a Scrooge to the Viking's playoff aspirations and move into a stronger position to unwrap the second title of their own.