Heading into Sunday night’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium — the third nationally televised matchup between the two teams in 13 months — the Vikings and Saints spent the week parrying questions about January’s Minneapolis Miracle, insisting the last matchup would have no bearing on this one.
In the end, both teams proved the point: The rematch was nothing like the last one. And if the two teams are to meet again in this season’s playoffs, there’s a good chance they will not do so in Minneapolis.
Two costly Vikings turnovers helped the Saints win 30-20, despite Drew Brees’ inability to establish a downfield passing game against a Vikings defense playing without Xavier Rhodes, Andrew Sendejo and Anthony Barr. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for more than 100 rushing yards as the Saints secured their first victory at U.S. Bank Stadium.
On a night that began with Miracle collaborator Stefon Diggs coming out of the tunnel as the last player introduced, the Vikings suffered what might have been a crippling blow to their bid for a first-round bye.
“We define critical errors as turnovers, fumbles, interceptions, occasionally a sack,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “Critical errors really end up determining outcomes of games and seasons, so we’re always trying to avoid those.”
The loss put the Vikings percentage points behind the Chicago Bears, who took the NFC North lead by becoming the only team in the division to win Sunday. The greater effect of the defeat might be that it put the Vikings two victories behind the Saints, and marked their second loss in a month to the two teams with the best records in the conference (the Saints and Rams).
“It’s tough,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “I will take this team anywhere and we will play with anyone. The Saints are one of the best teams in the NFC, and we beat them up and down the field. In the end, we just beat ourselves with turnovers.”
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Saints were 1-11 in Brees’ career (before Sunday night) when he had fewer than 80 passing yards in the first half. He finished with only 64 in the first half on Sunday night (though the Saints got a 44-yard completion from Taysom Hill to Michael Thomas), and didn’t cross the 100-yard mark until the final play of the third quarter.
Still, the Saints sailed to victory in a game that looked just before halftime like it might be firmly in the Vikings’ control.
Rushing off the left side of the Vikings’ defense with 3:03 left in the first half, Stephen Weatherly got an arm near Brees’ chest, forcing a hasty throw from the future Hall of Famer that Harrison Smith intercepted for Brees’ first pick of the season.
The takeaway, against a quarterback not given to many mistakes especially this season, looked like it could be a pivotal moment in a game that featured only two first-half punts. Instead, it precipitated a takeaway that turned out to be even more pivotal.
With the Vikings at the Saints’ 18 and potentially driving toward a 10-point halftime lead, Adam Thielen had the ball stripped by P.J. Williams after a 5-yard gain, and Marshon Lattimore scooped up the fumble for a 54-yard return, followed by a 15-yard penalty on Laquon Treadwell for throwing his helmet at the end of the play.
Two plays later, the Saints were in the end zone, with Alvin Kamara’s 1-yard touchdown run following his 17-yard gain off a pass from Brees.
Zimmer said after the game he’d told the team all week he planned to be aggressive, given how the Vikings would need to deal with an explosive Saints team. The Vikings went for it three times on fourth down, scoring their first touchdown of the night on a 1-yard pass from Kirk Cousins to Diggs. But at the end of the first half, the Vikings opted to run the ball twice and drain the final 30 seconds off the clock to end the first half — a decision Zimmer said was affected by Thielen’s fumble on the previous drive.
They returned to a more aggressive tack on their first possession of the second half, going for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 45. Treadwell couldn’t hang onto Cousins’ throw over the middle, and the Saints drove for a field goal that extended their lead to 20-13.
The Vikings’ next possession proved to be even more disastrous.
On the first play, Cousins rolled to his left, looking to make a play with Marcus Davenport bearing down on him. The Vikings caught a break when officials ruled Cousins was down before Davenport ripped the ball out of his hand, calling the play a 2-yard sack instead of a fumble return to the Vikings' 17-yard line.
But four plays later, as Cousins tried to hit Diggs on a short crossing route on third down, the wide receiver stopped running against man coverage, and P.J. Williams picked off Cousins’ throw, returning it 45 yards for a touchdown.
“He was under duress, and I was trying to give him a relief throw,” Diggs said. “The pocket was collapsing, and I was just trying to show him my hands. He just did what he’s coached to do — threw it to a spot — and it was miscommunication. I take full responsibility. He did everything right; it was all on me.”
Television cameras showed Cousins nodding and patting Diggs’ back as the wide receiver came up to explain what had happened. The damage pushed the Saints’ lead to 14 points, extending their run to 17 unanswered points after Thielen’s fumble.
The wide receiver would go on to break the NFL record for 100-yard games to start a season, surpassing Charlie Hennigan’s old mark of seven, but his fourth-quarter touchdown only served to pull the Vikings within 10.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org