On paper, Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff matchup of Drew Brees and the Saints and Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings would appear to favor the former league MVP and Super Bowl champion from New Orleans.
Keenum started the regular season as the expected No. 3 quarterback in Minnesota.
Brees started the season as a 5,000-yard passer five times over — only nine such seasons are on record in NFL history — and was selected to 10 Pro Bowls and won Super Bowl XLIV, a game in which he also claimed MVP honors.
“You’d like to have a Hall of fame quarterback playing for you,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “All of these guys at one point in time never had playoff experience. That part is important, but once you get into it, it doesn’t really matter on game day. We have some experience from the playoffs two years ago. Does it really matter? No, what matters is how we play on Sunday. At the end of the day it still comes down to football.”
Keenum climbed into the starting role somewhat by default. Sam Bradford (knee) was hurt and Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t ready to return in September after missing all of last season recovering from a devastating knee injury of his own. Keenum, a castoff from the Los Angeles Rams after being unseated by No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, took the controls and steered the Vikings to a 13-3 record, NFC North championship and the second seed in the conference playoffs.
Zimmer said not all of Keenum’s strengths are tangible.
“He’s pretty much charged up all the time,” Zimmer said. “He’s an excitable guy. But he’s always excitable. The thing I appreciate about him, besides his big balls, is that he pays attention to detail. He studies. He works real hard in preparation. … I had to get that (anatomy reference) in.”
Keenum was no slouch, ranking seventh in the NFL in passer rating (98.3; Brees was at 103.9) and completing 67.6 percent of his passes (Brees, 72.0).
The battle of quarterbacks, of course, is impacted by defense. While Brees hit on almost 70 percent of his passes for 376 yards with two touchdowns in the wild-card win over the Panthers last week, Carolina dedicated more attention to stopping the Saints’ running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Each back cleared 1,500 yards from scrimmage this season.
“I’ve been telling you all year that you don’t sleep on Drew,” Ingram said. “If you are going to stack the box, try to stop the run and take us out of the game, then he is going to hurt you. We have been telling you that he is the best quarterback in the league. He is still Drew Brees.”
As Brees noted this week, the win over Carolina showed the Saints are capable of winning games in many different ways.
“We trust our system,” Brees said. “We trust each other.”
Zimmer’s point Wednesday when outlining how the Vikings might view slowing down the Saints: It will take all 11 defensive players to win the game.
“They move the pocket well,” Zimmer said. “We have to rush him differently than we would some other guy. When you play a great quarterback it’s a combination of rush, coverage and disguise.”
One stat seems to give the Vikings some leverage in the duel with Brees. Minnesota’s third-down defense limited opponents to first down conversions on 25.2 percent of opportunities in 2017, an NFL record for a 16-game season.
The Vikings had three Pro Bowl picks on defense with linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen and cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Safety Harrison Smith was rated the top defensive player in the NFL by the performance-tracking site Pro Football Focus. Zimmer said it’s the sum of parts that made his defense special.
“I just think it’s the lack of egos. Everybody wants everybody else to succeed. Nobody cares to be the man,” Barr said. “We play together.”
–Field Level Media