“We could have made some noise, but we didn’t.”— Vikings safety Harrison Smith, following the Vikings Wild Card game loss to the Seattle Seahawks in 2016.
If I had a dollar for every time I have thought, said or wrote the following, “I just want one Super Bowl win by the Vikings before I die,” then I would have enough money to not have to worry about it, or anything else, for that matter. That desire for a Vikings Super Bowl win is the consensus mindset of most Vikings fans of my vintage. Many younger fans would settle for a Super Bowl appearance by Minnesota because they have never seen one.
But how about the Vikings players? They just want one before they retire.
The day after the Vikings lost that playoff game to Seattle, Harrison Smith was cleaning out his locker for the season and not enjoying it much. He knew it then, and he knows it now, that the chances to play in and win a Super Bowl come few and far between for most NFL players. He knew, and really felt it that day, that you must cash in on the opportunities you get in the playoffs. And now Smith and his teammates have another opportunity when the New Orleans Saints visit U.S. Bank Stadium for the NFC Divisional Playoff game on Sunday. They won’t likely go into this game without anything but a determination to not mess up this opportunity again.
“We have obviously have had a sour taste in our mouths since then,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said of the last playoff loss. “That was a goal of ours—that was one of the boxes we wanted to check off—first of all make the playoffs. The second check was to get that first round bye. Now it’s to go ahead and play our best football and win this game.”
It’s good that Smith and a number of Vikings played in that playoff game two years ago. It’s even more important that this whole team played the Saints at the beginning of this season and beat them 29-19. (It’s not important that only Brian Robison played in the Vikings last playoff game against the Saints following the 2009 season.) It could give them a mental edge. But none of those previous games will have very much bearing on who wins Sunday. We have heard little else than the teams who opened the season together are different now a whole season later.
“Yeah, they’ve all changed, we’ve changed, but there’s the base things on both sides of both teams [that] are still the same,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, who has watched that game film several times. “Sometimes I get ticked-off about ‘well, [the Saints] have to find their identity’ and ‘that was week one.’ Did anyone in this room think we were going to be 13-3 and play in a divisional game that week? Did we know our identity? Everybody said we weren’t going to be worth a lick anyways, so I just think everybody is like that.”
Ultimately, Zimmer is right. All that talk is just talk. We are a long way from when Sam Bradford, Dalvin Cook and Adrian Peterson were playing in this matchup, so things are not the same on either side of the field. This game will come down to solid game planning, very good execution and some good fortune when it comes to turnovers, penalties and strange bounces of the football. These two teams line up as two very good teams that were destined to meet somewhere in the playoffs this season, and it comes this weekend.
Since that first game, the Saints have been able to compile some nice numbers for their squad. Under the direction of future hall of fame quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints offense has performed well. The offense is ranked 2nd in yards (391.2 per game) and 4th in points scored (28.0 per game). They are a well-balanced unit (fifth in passing yards and rushing yards, compiling 261.8 yards and 129.4 yards, respectively). And they improved marginally upon all those numbers on Wild Card weekend against the Carolina Panthers, except for rushing yards, putting up a mere 41 yards.
That doesn’t mean their running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara were ineffective in the Wild Card game, it’s just the Saints won that game with the arm of Brees (376 yards and two scores), which had been the New Orleans modus operandi in years past, but became less so this season. Brees threw less in 2017 because of the balance of his offense, not the increase of his age (he will be 39 the next day after the game). The Vikings defense will have to shut down the running backs (each of whom has compiled more that 1,500 total yards this season), but they can’t forget about pestering Brees, who likes to get the ball out quickly. The Saints are a little beat up on their offensive line, with guard Andrus Peat suffering a broken fibula last week in New Orleans, but that only means Brees will look to get the ball out even faster.
“Each week we have a rush plan going into the ball game, depending on who the quarterback is and where he sets, how fast he gets the ball out and all the different things,” Zimmer said. “[The Saints] move the pocket well, sometimes they run sprint-outs and sometimes they run boots that are maximum protection things, shots down the field. All those things you have to be aware of. But, yes, we have to rush him differently than we would some other guy. I’ve always said that when you play a great quarterback, it’s always a combination of rush, coverage and disguise.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Saints started out with a number of new faces in 2017, and conventional wisdom said that they took a little while to get used to each other—because they have improved. On the season, the Saints defense finished at 17th in yards per game (336.5) and 10th in points allowed (20.4 per game). They were fairly balanced on those yards allowed, ranked 15th in passing (224.8) and 16th in rushing (111.7). And last Sunday against the Panthers they didn’t have their best game of the season, allowing 413 yards (306 through the air and 107 on the ground) and 26 points. The Panthers gave them everything they could handle.
Still, the defense is solid with Cameron Jordan (son of former Vikings tight end Steve Jordan) moving back and forth between right and left end and wreaking havoc in opposing backs fields (Jordan tied Everson Griffen for 4th place during the regular season with 13.0 sacks per game). And then there is the rookie corner Marshawn Lattimore, who is getting plenty of steam for defensive rookie of the year. He has certainly gotten the Vikings wide receivers’ attention.
“He’s a good player,” Thielen said. “He’s physical, he can run with anybody. He is playing with a lot of confidence, right now. He’s got great ball skills. He got pretty much everything you need to be a really good corner in this league. He’s not playing like a rookie—he’s not a rookie anymore.”
No one is rookie by the end of the season, so the saying goes, and that certainly includes Vikings veteran quarterback Case Keenum, who this season started and played (14 and 15, respectively) the most games in a season in his career. While Keenum embarks upon his first playoff game as a pro and nerves could be expected, Zimmer took a while to make Keenum comfortable in his job during the regular season, so he is likely used to a little of the pressure to play well. Zimmer expects him to be amped up for the game, but not any more than usual.
“He’s pretty much charged up all of the time, so I don’t worry about him getting too much more than what he is,” Zimmer said. “He’s an excitable guy, but he’s always excitable, so I don’t see that being much of a thing. The thing I appreciate about him is, besides his big balls, is that he pays attention to detail, he studies, he works real hard in preparation, and so I think all of those things come into factor.”
The play of Keenum is a big key for the Vikings in this game. As is the ability of the defense to continue playing as they have all season (they are the top defense in the league) by stopping the run, eliminating the short passing game to Kamara and rattling Brees in the pocket. I expect the Vikings to be able to score on the Saints and hold them down on defense. I expect the U.S. Bank crowd to be a factor in that. I expect this Vikings team that went to the playoffs two years ago and were disappointed to make up for that by finishing off what they didn’t against the Seahawks. And I think they will “make some noise” with a win in their biggest game of the season.
Just one step closer to me potentially dying a happy man.
Minnesota—24, New Orleans—20