The last time the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints were on the same field, the Vikings won one of the best NFL playoff games in recent memory, and did so in dramatic fashion. Just about nine months after Stefon Diggs ripped the Saints' hearts out, the two teams will square off again in a primetime game.
Fittingly, the Vikes and Saints again look like two of the better teams in the NFC, and it would not be surprising to see them both back in the playoffs at the end of the year. Minnesota got off to a bit of a shaky start but after three consecutive wins is now sitting at 4-2-1 and leading the NFC North. The Saints rebounded from an embarrassing season-opening loss to the Buccaneers by winning five consecutive games, and they now lead the NFC South with their 5-1 record.
Both teams are still playing catch-up to the undefeated Los Angeles Rams in the NFC, but a win on Sunday night (8:20 p.m., NBC, Stream on FUBOTV) could propel either team forward and kickstart a run that lasts through the end of the year. How will Sunday night's festivities play out? We're glad you asked.
When the Vikings have the ball
Adam Thielen is having one of the best receiving seasons in the history of football.
After seven games, Thielen has 67 catches for 822 yards and five touchdowns. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only three players have ever averaged more receiving yards per game than Thielen's current 117.4 mark. Among the top 100 players in receiving yards per game during that time period, Thielen's 2018 season ranks fifth in catch rate at 75.3 percent -- and two of the guys ahead of him had 25 targets or fewer. Thielen spends most of his time these days in the slot, meaning he'll likely be matched up with New Orleans slot corner P.J. Williams, who has been vulnerable in coverage this season.
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Williams matching up with Thielen in the slot means we'll presumably see a matchup of Marshon Lattimore and Stefon Diggs on the outside. Lattimore is still New Orleans' best corner, even if he has not been quite as spectacular this season as he was a year ago. Diggs has been fairly inconsistent this season, as he has three games with nine receptions or more (30-342-2 in those games) and three games with four receptions or fewer (10-93-1 in those games). The common thread in his big games is that the Vikings were playing against secondaries that have struggled overall this season: Green Bay, the Rams, and the Eagles. The Saints fit that bill as well, though Lattimore is tougher to beat on a route than any corner on those three teams, given that Marcus Peters has been playing injured and struggling for a while now.
And when it comes to the Minnesota passing game, Thielen and Diggs are pretty much the only game in town. Of Kirk Cousins' 300 passes, 163 have been intended for one of those two players. Diggs ranks second on the team with 74 targets (Thielen has 89), but the player who ranks third (tight end Kyle Rudolph) has less than half the number of targets as Diggs (36). Rudolph and No. 3 wideout Laquon Treadwell have 68 targets combined, which, again, is fewer than Diggs has on his own.
Not having running back Dalvin Cook to help in the passing game has been a bummer, as Latavius Murray does not have nearly the same versatility as the dynamic second-year back. That said, Murray has performed admirably in the run game, averaging 4.8 yards per carry while filling in for Cook. He's been far more effective over the past few weeks than he was early in the season, perhaps indicating that he is settling into the every-down role that he was clearly not ticketed for at the start of the season.
The New Orleans run defense has been somewhat surprisingly effective this season, limiting opponents to only 3.1 yards per carry and allowing only one opponent to crack the 100-yard mark -- Tampa Bay all the way back in Week 1. The Saints' defense has been much friendlier through the air and has struggled to force turnovers and get off the field, though, so Cousins and company could conceivably move the ball up and down the field with relative ease.
When the Saints have the ball
Drew Brees is having a season that has him in the inner-circle of MVP contenders, but I really want to start this section with Michael Thomas. Brees' No. 1 wideout is having a season that is defying the constraints of reality. Through six games, Thomas has been thrown to 58 times. He has caught an incredible 53 of those 58 passes, for 588 yards and four touchdowns.
The NFL began tracking targets in 1992. Since then, according to Pro-Football-Reference, there have been 3,291 instances of a player being targeted at least 50 times in a season. Among that group of 3,291, Thomas' current 91.4 percent catch rate ranks fourth. All three players ahead of him are running backs. He's one of just nine players in the top 100 in catch rate to average in excess of 10 yards per reception. If he keeps up this pace he'll become just the fifth player since '92 with a catch rate above 90 percent on at least 50 targets, only he'll nearly double the next-closest player's actual full-season target total. (Pierre Thomas of these same Saints caught 77 of 84 throws in his direction in 2013. Thomas is on pace for a 155-target season.)
Thomas seems likely to receive shadow coverage from the Vikings' Xavier Rhodes, who is one of the NFL's best corners when healthy. Of course, Rhodes is not expected to be 100 percent for the game, if he even plays. (The most recent reports had Mike Zimmer feeling optimistic about his status.) Rhodes is allowing only a 71.3 passer rating on throws in his direction this season, according to Sports Info Solutions, which is the 19th-best figure among 72 defenders who have been thrown at 25 times or more so far this season.
The only other Viking on that list of 72 players is linebacker Eric Kendricks, and he has been ... not as good as Rhodes. Kendricks' 144.2 passer rating on throws in his direction ranks 70th among that group of players, and we have seen him repeatedly victimized by teams like the Rams, who were able to get him matched up on running backs and wide receivers through creative play designs. The Saints' Sean Payton is, of course, one of the most creative offensive minds in the league, and it would not be at all surprising to see him attempt to get Alvin Kamara (40 catches for 362 yards and a touchdown) or tight end Ben Watson (23-230-1) isolated on Kendricks in space in order to create a big play.
Brees' other passing game targets are free-agent acquisition Cameron Meredith and rookie Tre'Quan Smith, now that speedster Ted Ginn has been placed on IR. Neither Meredith nor Smith has made a huge impact yet this season, but both players have great speed and the ability to stretch the field. Meredith is more likely to work in the slot while Smith is an outside guy, but given the attention paid to New Orleans' short-area targets (Thomas, Kamara, Watson), both should have ample opportunity to break big plays down the field.
The Minnesota pass defense overall has not been nearly as strong this season as in recent years, as the Vikes are allowing 8.2 yards per pass attempt (28th in the NFL). The Danielle Hunter-led pass rush has generated 21 sacks but their hits and hurries totals are lower than one might expect for a team with that many sacks. The absence of Everson Griffen has played a role there, obviously, but one figures it will be difficult for them to get much pressure on Brees, given how quickly he gets rid of the ball and the quality of New Orleans' pass-protection. (Hunter himself is off to a ridiculous start, recording at least one sack in each of Minnesota's first seven games.)
Moving the ball through the air is far easier than doing so on the ground against Minnesota. The Vikings have allowed only 3.7 yards per rush this season, fourth-best in the NFL. In particular they have done an excellent job of limiting yards after contact on the ground, ranking 10th with a 2.26 per carry average. They have rarely missed tackles in the run game, which should aid them in their efforts to keep Kamara and Mark Ingram held down.
Prediction: Vikings 31, Saints 27