Can this version of the Vikings defense slow down Drew Brees, and can Kirk Cousins direct a productive offense in the Superdome? The Vikings might need to answer both of those questions in the affirmative to beat a 13-3 Saints team that’s been awfully tough at home in the playoffs.
TWO BIG STORY LINES
All eyes on Cousins
Cousins will start his second career playoff game — and his first for Minnesota — at the end of his second year with the team. A big game for Cousins in the Superdome would boost the quarterback’s résumé and potentially counter some of the narratives about whether he’s good enough to win in the playoffs. If Brees gets the Saints off to a fast start, the Vikings will need a strong day from Cousins.
Running game at full strength
The Vikings rested Dalvin Cook for the final two weeks of the regular season and should benefit from the running back’s presence after he recovered enough from chest and shoulder injuries to practice in full all week. Alexander Mattison was also a full participant after missing two games with an ankle injury, and the Vikings will count on both of them against a run defense than ranks 17th in the league in yards allowed per attempt.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Vikings’ secondary vs. WR Michael Thomas
Thomas set an NFL record with 149 receptions, and he’ll face a secondary in flux. The Vikings will be without Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes; Thomas should see plenty of time lined up outside against Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, but the Saints could test the Vikings’ depth at nickel corner with Thomas in the slot.
Vikings’ offensive line vs. Saints DE Cameron Jordan
The five-time Pro Bowler has 15½ sacks this season; the Saints primarily line him up at left defensive end, where he’d face Vikings right tackle Brian O’Neill, but they’ve given Jordan a handful of snaps on the right side in games this season. Keeping him away from Kirk Cousins will be one of the Vikings’ big priorities on Sunday.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
6-1 The Saints’ record in home playoff games since 2006, when Sean Payton became head coach and Brees became the quarterback. New Orleans’ only playoff loss at the Superdome was last year’s controversial NFC Championship Game.
THE VIKINGS WILL WIN IF…
They can take advantage of a Saints defensive front that’s missing Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins because of injury, utilize Cook in a way that keeps some pressure off Cousins and avoid giving up the kinds of big plays to Thomas and Alvin Kamara they’ve allowed for much of the season.
THE SAINTS WILL WIN IF…
Brees’ quick release allows him to get the ball to playmakers like Thomas, Kamara and Jared Cook before the pass rush gets to him, while the Saints contain Dalvin Cook and force Cousins to test such defenders as Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams in coverage.
Prediction: Saints, 34-28
Win Probability: 40 percent