The winner of Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game between the Vikings and Saints will be the favorite to win the NFC championship next weekend for the right to return to U.S. Bank Stadium for the Super Bowl.

And if you want to know why it was so important that the Vikings locked in the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, coach Mike Zimmer explained what that week off gave his squad.

“It gave us a chance to get some guys back. We had everybody practice, so I think that is a good thing,” he said. “We took a little time to try to refresh. I think all of these guys will be ready to go.”

Zimmer said he believes both tight end Kyle Rudolph and center Pat Elflein should be ready to go, and their returns should fortify the offensive line and offensive game plan.

The Vikings’ recent history against New Orleans hasn’t been great, as they have lost four of their past five to Drew Brees and company. And while the Vikings’ 29-19 home victory in the season opener was emphatic, the teams are completely different at this point in the season.

The Saints offense remains a juggernaut, as they finished the regular season second in the NFL in yards per game (391.2) and fourth in points per game (28.0). But their defense showed a lot of improvement as the season wore on and finished 17th in total defense (336.5 yards per game) and 10th in points per game (20.4).

“I feel like they’re playing with much more confidence right now, as are we,” Zimmer said. “I think that is the biggest thing. I think at the beginning of the year no one really respected us and thought we were going to be any good. They came out and lost their first two games and then they end up going 11-5.

“I think the confidence level of both teams is really high at this point. They end up wining their division and we won ours. I think they have used this young running back [Alvin Kamara] a little bit more and I feel like their defense is playing better now.”

When asked what he has seen from the Saints defense, he said they have a lot of good young talent. Still, Zimmer sees opportunities for his offense.

“They create a lot more opportunities for their offense now. They have better players now. [Defensive end] Cameron Jordan is a very good player. [Marshon] Lattimore, the corner, is a very good player. The safety [Marcus] Williams is a good player. They’ve added some youth in there, but they are very aggressive in the things they do. They have given up some big plays, and hopefully we can get some on them.”

Home field vs. Brees

Like the Vikings, the Saints went 7-1 at home this year as they played in their raucous Superdome. And while it helped keep opposing offenses confused, it also helped Brees do what he does best: make audibles at the line under quiet conditions.

Zimmer said that when he watched Sunday’s wild-card matchup between the Saints and Panthers, he saw how big a role the stadium played.

“Carolina was able to come back on them. They didn’t finish the game the right way, but they came back,” he said. “[The Saints] played at home, and New Orleans was 4-4 on the road. They’re 8-1 at home, that’s why I think it’s going to be big that we play in front of our fans in our stadium.”

Zimmer said the fans will be able to play a role in affecting future Hall of Fame quarterback Brees.

“He is outstanding. A great competitor. Extremely accurate, he set the record this year for completion percentage. He’s very smart, knows where to go with the football, they give him a lot of freedom at the line of scrimmage,” Zimmer said. “That’s why it will be big for our fans to be loud. He is a great player and he is hard to defend. This guy is hard to defend.

“The crowd has to help us a lot. This is a big game. I feel like this is maybe two of the better teams left in the playoffs. If our crowd can help us to will this game through and get a victory this week, it would be outstanding.”

The Saints lost starting left guard Andrus Peat last week when he broke his fibula. They will put Senio Kelemete in his place, but Zimmer said the New Orleans offensive line overall looks good.

“[Brees] hasn’t been sacked very much and they do a good job. He does a good job of getting the ball out early on some plays, and then they have the block him up plays where they try to throw shots down the field,” he said. “Drew moves in the pocket well, and their offensive line has done a great job. They have [Ryan] Ramczyk, a young rookie, playing one tackle. The center is a good player, Max [Unger]. I think they’re much improved. This is a good football team.”

Does Zimmer view this game as a big test of his vaunted secondary, which was the best in the NFC in terms of passing yards per game (192)? “Yeah, and I think this will be a good test for us. Our whole defense, this will be a good test for,” he said.

When asked if the Saints have any weaknesses to exploit, Zimmer said that’s not the point.

“There is so many other things they do good that you have to be able to defeat their strengths before you can worry about their weaknesses,” he said.

JOTTINGS

• It can’t be emphasized enough that Mike Zimmer wants fans to make some noise for the Vikings’ divisional playoff game. He is asking for them to be louder than they have ever been at U.S. Bank Stadium.

 

• The Vikings are $13 million under the NFL salary cap, which is $167 million this season. They can carry that over to next season for their many free agents they have to sign.

 

• The Vikings secondary will have to key in on New Orleans’ Michael Thomas, who has the most catches by a wide receiver in his first two years in NFL history. The Ohio State product had eight catches for 131 yards last week against Carolina.

 

• The Vikings are 7-3 at home in the NFC playoffs divisional round and have won their past four (1976 vs. Washington, 1998 vs. Arizona, 2000 vs. New Orleans, 2009 vs. Dallas). The last time the Vikings lost at home in a divisional playoff game was in 1975, when the Cowboys beat them in the infamous Drew Pearson push-off game.

 

• When people think of the Vikings-Saints playoff history, they think of the 2009 NFC Championship Game. But the teams have met two other times, both Vikings victories: In the 1987 season, the Vikings went to the Superdome and rolled 44-10 in the wild-card round, New Orleans’ first playoff game. And in the 2000 season, the Vikings won 34-16 in the divisional round at the Metrodome. Both those Vikings teams lost in the NFC Championship Game.

 

• J.D. Spielman, the son of Vikings GM Rick Spielman, made both the Football Writers Association of America and USA Today college football freshman All-America teams. He set freshman records at Nebraska with 55 receptions for 830 yards and finished the season with 1,572 all-purpose yards.

 

• Former Gophers and Vikings receiver Tom Hall died Dec. 14 in Connecticut at 77. Hall played on the Gophers’ two Rose Bowl teams before spending five seasons with the Vikings. He also played for Detroit and New Orleans.