Considering the central figures in the Week 1 matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings included Sam Bradford and Adrian Peterson, there’s a brand new story to tell for each team entering the NFC divisional playoff rematch at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday.
Bradford, 27 of 32 in a 29-19 victory in the regular-season opener, threw only 11 more passes (three weeks later) the rest of the season because of a knee injury.
Peterson, in his first game with any team other than the Vikings, was a headliner only because of a steamed exchange with head coach Sean Payton on the Saints’ sideline inspired by very limited playing time. Peterson, who rushed for over 10,000 yards in his career with the Vikings, had six carries for 18 yards in Week 1 and wound up being traded to the Arizona Cardinals.
Behind Bradford, the star in the backfield Sept. 11 was rookie running back Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 127 yards. Three weeks later, a torn ACL pushed Cook to IR for the rest of the season.
What changed for these Super Bowl contenders?
It might be simpler to study what didn’t shift after Week 1, but New Orleans went 12-3 after an 0-2 start.
And Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara, likely the Offensive Rookie of the Year, had more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage after picking up just 38 total yards against the Vikings.
For the Vikings, Case Keenum became the starting quarterback for the Vikings and won 12 games to lead Minnesota to a 13-3 overall record.
Get to know the key figures in Sunday’s playoff showdown with these five matchups that will determine which team advances to the NFC Championship game:
5. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore vs. Vikings WR Adam Thielen.
A second-team All-Pro, Thielen caught nine passes for 157 yards in the Week 1 game and was targeted 142 times in 2017. His average of 14.0 yards per reception underplays his explosiveness and ability to freely release off the line of scrimmage. The 11th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Lattimore became a top five cornerback in coverage according to Pro Football Focus, with five interceptions and one Pick-6.
“He’s physical. He can run with anybody,” Thielen said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. He’s got great ball skills. He’s pretty much got everything you need to be a really good corner in this league.”
The good news for Thielen is the Vikings can also flip the ball to wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who has one spot ahead of Thielen in the PFF receiver ratings at Nos. 9-10.
4. Vikings FS Harrison Smith vs. Saints QB Drew Brees.
Smith somehow was left out of the Pro Bowl despite one of the best seasons in the secondary coach Mike Zimmer has witnessed. That’s serious praise for Deion Sanders’ coach (1995-1999) in Dallas. But Smith is a modern-day Darren Woodson for the Vikings with range to cover the deep third of the field and enough size and speed to come up as a fourth linebacker to stuff the run. With the Vikings planning to play man coverage on the edge and Brees able to deliver the ball with immediacy, Smith becomes the key player in the cat-and-mouse game with the Saints.
3. Saints LG Senio Kelemete vs. Vikings DTs Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph.
Kelemete steps in for Andrus Peat (broken fibula), who became the 20th player on injured reserve this season for the Saints when he was moved from the active roster Tuesday. But Kelemete is not untested, having logged snaps on 61 percent of the Saints’ offensive plays in the regular season. He’s accustomed to working with left tackle Terron Armstead, who is tasked with holding up against Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen.
2. Saints WR Michael Thomas vs. Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes.
When the teams met Week 1, the Vikings didn’t recognize Thomas as a No. 1 receiver based on their defensive behavior: Rhodes roamed the field rather than locking up Thomas. They matched up on only nine snaps, and Thomas had two receptions. In other games this season, the Vikings used Rhodes to stick top wideouts from the Steelers’ Antonio Brown (four catches, 54 yards), the Buccaneers’ Mike Evans (4-36) and the Falcons’ Julio Jones (2-26).
Thomas was Brees’ target on 149 on his 536 attempts this season. Thomas caught 104 passes for 1,245 yards and caught at least five passes 14 times.
1. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer vs. Saints coach Sean Payton.
Former coworkers in Dallas and disciples of Bill Parcells, Zimmer’s daughters used to babysit Payton’s kids. They spent holidays and vacations and many a meal together, living merely two miles apart. Stylistically the schemes are diametric opposites and Zimmer’s offense is closer to the throwback version reliant on winning at the line of scrimmage and controlling the ball and the clock while playing punishing defense. Payton’s offense with Brees at the trigger runs with uncanny efficiency when the passing game is going well and the Saints are as reliant on their running backs as any team in league history, with more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage coming from that position. There are no surprises these coaches can throw at the other, which makes for an intense environment indoors Sunday afternoon.
–Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media