Who would have thought that the Vikings and Saints would produce the greatest current playoff rivalry in the NFL?
Sunday will mark the fifth time the two teams have met in the postseason, and the third time since 2009.
Not only that, but the 2009 NFC Championship Game, which the Saints won 31-28 in overtime, and the Vikings’ 29-24 win at U.S. Bank Stadium in the 2017 divisional round, are two of the best playoff games in recent memory.
In the 2009 game, quarterback Brett Favre was targeted by the Saints defense and coaching staff in such a way that it became a large piece of the Bountygate scandal.
The NFL suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season after completing its investigation.
On top of that, the NFL changed its playoff overtime rules after the Vikings lost by a field goal and never got the ball in the extra session. Now, every team gets at least one possession in overtime.
The 2017 game, of course, featured the Minneapolis Miracle when Case Keenum threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs with no time on the clock.
Recently the NFL Network named that the ninth greatest game in league history.
Overall, the Vikings are 3-1 against the Saints in the playoffs, but New Orleans is a 7 ½-point favorite this time.
Zimmer, Payton close
Payton told ESPN two years ago that he and Vikings coach Mike Zimmer became close friends when they worked together in Dallas under Bill Parcells from 2003-2005. In fact, Payton gave Adam Zimmer, Mike’s son and the current Vikings linebackers coach, his first NFL job as an assistant linebackers coach with the Saints in 2006.
“We were professional driving-range partners. … And we were frustrated golfers, I would say,” Payton told ESPN. “But we enjoyed the same things. We enjoyed football, our families and golf. And holy cow, we did a lot of things together. And his daughters were great [when they baby-sat Payton’s children]. And when Adam finished college, I hired him here and his career got started. … We’re both from Illinois, and his father was a legendary high school coach there.”
New Orleans’ Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, and Zimmer is 2-2 against him since joining the Vikings in 2014.
In those four games, Brees has completed 97 of 135 passes (71.8%) for 998 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
Zimmer said Wednesday that he knows the defense will have to give Brees a number of different looks to try and keep him off balance.
“You can’t just sit there and play two deep, you can’t just sit there and play three deep. You got to mix up all the different things. You got to give him as many looks as you can give him,” Zimmer said. “He’s very smart, he’s a great competitor, extremely accurate, obviously. Moves well in the pocket, so we’ll just have to see.”
The Vikings might have a chance to disrupt Brees with their pass rush. Brees took just 12 sacks this season, the fewest of any quarterback with at least 200 pass attempts. But the Vikings’ 48 sacks were tied for the fifth most in the league and Brees said during his media availability this week that he knows the Vikings pass rush is going to be one of the best he has faced this season.
“That has been the strength of this defense for a long time, those guys’ ability to get after the passer,” Brees said. “They are one of the league leaders in sacks, and that directly relates to their ability to take the ball away. They have a ball-hawking secondary, they have linebackers that are great at getting the ball out and just being around the ball. It’s a very aggressive defense from that standpoint.
“That is something they thrive in and it’s something we have to make sure we pay close attention to.”
The story of former Ohio State teammates and current Vikings Pat Elflein and Jalyn Holmes shows just how much respect these two players have for one another, going all the way back to their college days.
Holmes will take part in his first playoff game Sunday, and it will be Elflein’s third career playoff start. In Elflein’s last playoff game against the Eagles in the 2017 NFC Championship Game, he broke his ankle in the third quarter, which set him back in 2018.
Since being drafted in the third round by the Vikings in 2017, Elflein has started every possible game on the offensive line when healthy.
Holmes is a different story, as he was a fourth-round pick in 2018 and appeared in five games last year after dealing with an injury and has appeared in five games so far this season.
He played 51% of the defensive snaps, a career high, in the Vikings’ loss to the Bears in the regular-season finale, and he had a career-best three tackles, including a sack of quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the fourth quarter.
Elflein, meanwhile, just finished his first season playing guard for the Vikings after moving over from center. Pro Football Focus had him ranked 27th (out of 83) at the position this season.
Elflein said that he knew Holmes, who is 6-5 and 283 pounds, was a unique player who could compete in the NFL.
“He was a very good player in college, obviously he is here for a reason,” Elflein said. “Just a freak athlete, fast, strong, works hard, has everything you want for a football player.”
He said that while Holmes has been dealing with injuries, he thinks his future is extremely bright.
“He is doing a good job. He is getting better every day,” Elflein said. “I get to see it in practice. He was great in college. A great player.”
Holmes said that his relationship with Elflein goes way back to his recruitment to Ohio State.
“I played with him for two years, my freshman and sophomore year,” Holmes said. “He was big, strong, fast, just having the total package, really. He was also a great leader for our team, and he’s doing the same thing now out here.”
The two players were at Ohio State together from 2014-2016, when the club went 37-4, won two Big Ten championships and a national championship in 2014.
“We never lost to Michigan, that was a good thing,” Holmes said. “And we won a couple of Big Ten championships together.”