All week, as they were met with questions about the “Minneapolis Miracle” and Sunday night’s NFC divisional playoff rematch against the New Orleans Saints, Vikings players dutifully parried the inquiries while shifting the focus to the here and now.
“It’s cliché, but we’ve kind of taken the approach that it’s our most important game, it’s our biggest game, because it’s the next game on our schedule,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “That question was asked when we went to L.A. as well — playing a really good team in prime time — and the same answer was given. It is a big game. It’s a team we’ll be battling in late December for a playoff spot, so it’s definitely a game we need to win.”
For as much as NFL players and coaches might roll their eyes about story lines and profess immunity to narratives, the Vikings and Saints are playing in the league’s marquee time slot this week because the powers that be know a rematch of one of the most dramatic contests in league history brings drama, and makes for good TV.
In the Vikings’ defense, though, there’s enough for them to focus on in this particular matchup not to spend much time entertaining memories of last year.
Their matchup with the Saints kicks off a six-games-in-seven-weeks stretch where they’ll face four Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, play four nationally televised games and see each of their NFC North foes. After the Vikings face the Saints, they’ll play the Lions at home before their bye week. Then, it’s on to Chicago, followed by a Sunday night game at home against the Packers, a trip to New England and a Monday night game against Seattle.
In other words, the Vikings are about to find out how good they really are. They won’t have to wait long to see how much of a chance they have at a first-round bye, either.
They begin the season’s eighth week as the NFC’s No. 4 seed, behind the Rams (7-0), the Saints (5-1) and the Redskins (4-2). The Vikings’ Week 2 tie against the Packers renders most tiebreaking scenarios moot, but since they’re already a game-and-a-half behind the Saints in the loss column, a defeat on Sunday night could put their chances of a bye (and a second-round playoff home game) on thin ice.
After getting off the field on 21 of 23 third downs the past two weeks against rookie quarterbacks, the Vikings will begin the key portion of their schedule by facing Drew Brees, who could be on his way to MVP honors at age 39 after completing 77.3 percent of his passes in his first six games while throwing 13 touchdowns without an interception.
“Number one, he’s a great competitor,” coach Mike Zimmer said this week. “Number two, I think as the game goes on he gets a much better feel of what the defense is trying to do throughout the course of the ballgame with him. A guy like him who has seen everything, he sees everything anyway, but he’s seen so many different looks that he can kind of decipher things quickly on the move. I think that’s part of it, and he’s got good players too. Michael Thomas is good, [Alvin] Kamara is good, [Mike] Ingram is good. They have a lot of good players.”
The Vikings’ first- and second-down defense, as Zimmer said earlier this week, had been one of their biggest issues in recent weeks; indeed, according to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, the Vikings have been the league’s worst team at giving up first downs on first and second down this season. They’ve been burned by running backs coming out of the backfield as receivers on some early downs this season, and they’ll face one of the league’s best in Kamara on Sunday night.
If they’re able to slow the Saints’ offense down and beat New Orleans at U.S. Bank Stadium for the third time in 13 months, the Vikings will be in the thick of the chase for one of the NFC’s top seeds, and have a victory over another contender to add to a résumé that so far includes four wins over teams with a combined 8-20 record.
With the Vikings’ stakes plenty high against the Saints in the present, there’s little need to dwell on the past.
“We talked about it [Wednesday], how much that play has been played [on TV] this week,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “I know it’s the same two teams and all that, but it’s a new season. Obviously, it was a play you’re never going to forget, but at the same time, we have a lot to focus on this week.”