One of the biggest difference makers in whether the Vikings will be able to stop the Saints on Sunday in their NFC wild-card game in New Orleans is their pass defense.

Everyone knows the Saints, who ranked seventh in the NFL by averaging 265.2 passing yards per game this season, are going to throw the ball with Drew Brees at quarterback.

The Vikings ranked 15th this season in pass defense, giving up 233.6 yards per game, after ranking third in 2018, second in 2017 and third in 2016.

And while safety Harrison Smith believes the Vikings pass defense made some big adjustments toward the end of the season, there’s no doubt the challenge got even greater this past week with the news that Mike Hughes is out for the season and fellow cornerback Mackenzie Alexander will miss at least the Saints game.

Breaking it down in five-game stretches, from Week 1 to Week 5 this season, the Vikings gave up 204.2 passing yards per game; from Week 6 to Week 10, they gave up 278 passing yards per game; and from Week 11 to Week 16, before the Vikings rested their starters in the meaningless season finale, they gave up 212.6 passing yards per game.

Smith said that stretch in the middle showed some problems in the pass defense, but the way the Vikings performed at the end of the season provides some encouragement.

“There was kind of a rough patch there early to midseason, and we started tightening up on those things,” Smith said. “Some of the pass yards are going to come when you’re up a few scores, they’re going to get a few yards that aren’t that meaningful. I think that we’ve done better.

“We can still play better and break up some balls. We just have to stay on our technique and our details.”

How does he account for those poor games in the middle of the season?

“There were some games where we gave up too many yards, too many points, not as good as we should have been on third downs,” Smith said. “We still can get a lot better on third down, especially third-and-long. So just focusing on the details.”

When it came to the regular season, Smith said the biggest thing he tried to do was stay consistent.

“Like any season there is going to be some adversity, some ups and downs, so I try to stay consistent and contribute to winning ballgames — whether I need to make a bunch of tackles or try to get a turnover,” Smith said. “As long as I execute my job and the other 10 are executing, we have a chance.”

Franchise all-time great

Smith finished the 2019 regular season with 85 tackles, his most since 2016. He had two QB hits, four tackles for loss, a sack, three forced fumbles, 11 pass deflections, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

This will be his fifth playoff game in eight pro seasons, and the Vikings are going to need him at his very best.

His lone postseason victory came against the Saints in 2018 at U.S. Bank Stadium, but he has been just as consistent in the postseason as he has in the regular season. He has averaged just over five tackles per game to go along with four tackles for loss, two pass breakups and one sack in those four playoff contests.

The fact is, Smith is building a career to go along with the best safeties in Vikings history, and he has been acknowledged by the NFL with his fifth consecutive invitation to the Pro Bowl.

“It’s always great to be recognized from players, fans and coaches, and it’s good for the Vikings,” Smith said. “But it’s a team game so a lot of the good things that I get to do is because good things are happening around me from all the other players on our team.”

Pro Football Focus put together its list of the best safeties in the NFL in 2019, and both Smith and Saints safety Marcus Williams made it.

PFF called Smith the “Master of Disguise & Coverage” and wrote, “For Harrison Smith, there really are no weak areas in his overall game, but he especially excels in pass coverage.”

That’s why he will be a key part of the Vikings’ success at New Orleans.

Still, Smith said when it comes to accolades like that, he tries to focus on what his coaches see in his play to figure out if he’s making the right decisions on the field.

“Again, it’s cool to get recognized, but at the end of the day all I care about is what my coaches are telling me and if I’m playing things appropriately,” Smith said. “Really, they’re the only ones that know.”

No one believing in Vikings

This is going to be an interesting game. At their best, the Vikings can play with anyone, but around the country no one is believing they can top the Saints in New Orleans.

The game opened in the Las Vegas books with the Saints as seven-point favorites and quickly jumped to eight.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he’s aware of the reputation of his team heading into Sunday.

“I don’t think anybody believes that we can win this game, so we go in there and we slug it out,” he said. “All I really care about is that 53 guys believe.”

JOTTINGS

• Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards on the challenge of stopping Michael Thomas, who easily led the NFL with 1,725 receiving yards and 149 catches this season. “He’s catching everything around him,” Edwards said. “You see people doubling him, you see people tripling him, and he still finds a way to get the football.”

• Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski on recent fumbled snaps between center Garrett Bradbury and quarterback Kirk Cousins: “Every day we have a center-quarterback exchange period, even this late in the season. It’s something that you continue to work on. You never take for granted, and I think Garrett and Kirk just continue to bank reps together, I think [that] can only help.”

• Former Vikings players on the Saints include quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, center Nick Easton, fullback Zach Line and running back Latavius Murray.

• The Gophers started only two seniors on offense in their Outback Bowl victory over Auburn: running back Rodney Smith and wide receiver Tyler Johnson. On defense only three underclassmen started: sophomore Thomas Rush at linebacker, junior Coney Durr and sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. at defensive back.

Brian Dutcher, the son of former Gophers men’s basketball coach Jim Dutcher, has No. 13 San Diego State at 15-0 after a 77-68 victory at Utah State on Saturday night. The Aztecs are one of two undefeated teams remaining in Division I.

Amir Coffey became the first Gophers product to play in the NBA since Kris Humphries in 2017 when he took the court for the Clippers on Tuesday.

• Spotrac currently has the Twins with the 16th-highest payroll in baseball for 2020 at $103 million, with estimates for arbitration-eligible players such as Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios, Taylor Rogers and Byron Buxton.