With 1 game remaining in the NFL's 2017 regular season, football fans as well as the folks who set the betting / legalized gambling odds out in Las Vegas are already looking ahead weeks in advance to the NFL Playoffs.
And there seems to be one conclusion that at least some of them agree on: which is that within the NFC, the two best teams at the moment are the (12-3) Minnesota Vikings and the (11-4) New Orleans Saints.
Despite their (13-2) record and clinching of the #1 overall Playoff seed, the Philadelphia Eagles aren't seen as "the team to beat" in the NFC, since they lost starting QB and League MVP candidate Carson Wentz to a season-ending knee injury 3 weeks ago.
Eagles back-up QB and former starter Nick Foles hasn't generated much confidence among analysts nor knowledgeable NFL fans nation-wide that he is capable of leading Philadelphia on a Playoff run, and the current Super Bowl odds just recently released earlier this week by the good folks at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook would seem to bear that out.
The Eagles have fallen all the way down to 6th overall in the current Super Bowl odds, and are the 4th highest rated team in the NFC at 12-1.
Taking over the top spot in the NFC and ranked #2 overall (at 4-1 odds) are the Vikings — with the Saints right behind them as the NFC's 2nd highest rated team with 7-1 odds and the 4th highest favorite overall to win Super Bowl LII on February 4th.
As a direct result, many are now starting to point towards a possible Saints-Vikings Playoff "showdown" which potentially would occur in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs on the weekend of January 13th-14th in Minneapolis; in what would be a "rematch" between the two teams from their first meeting back in Week #1 of the regular season, when the Vikings beat the Saints 29-19 on ESPN Monday Night Football.
The Saints back in Week #1 weren't the same team that we've got to eventually see over the course of the season, that slowly began to get better with each passing week and now has become one of the League's best teams.
Back in that game, the Saints were still trying to establish an offensive identity while trying to figure out how to utilize veteran RB Adrian Peterson effectively while incorporating him into the team's offense.
As we know now, the Peterson "experiment" ultimately failed; and the veteran was traded to the Arizona Cardinals prior to the Saints' Week #5 win at home over Detroit.
Saints rookie Alvin Kamara after that opening game at Minnesota, began assuming his current role just prior to the trade of Peterson and has emerged since that time as one of the League's most dynamic young stars.
Also since that time: the Saints defense is playing much better; and after surrendering a League-high 470 yards and 29 points to the Vikings offense in that opening game, the Saints defense now currently through 15 games this season is ranked 15th overall.
In the month of December alone despite missing a handful of players due to injuries, the Saints defense is allowing only 18 points per game, 311 yards per game, giving up only 34% on third downs, and have recorded 9 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, and 6 interceptions.
Long story short: this Saints team right now is NOT the same Saints team that we saw lose at Minnesota on Opening Night and which began the season at 0-2.
"A lot of people just wanted to talk about the 0-2 start, and the fact we were coming off a couple of seasons when we had had slow starts," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said to reporters yesterday, reflecting on the first two losses to Minnesota and New England to begin the season.
"Those are very good football teams," Brees added. "And despite losing those games, I think we felt like we were much closer than people were giving us credit for. ... No one had the mentality of: 'Oh, here we go again.' ... We stuck with the process and believed in each other. We just needed a little bit of validation."
For that matter, Minnesota isn't the same team from that game, either.
In that opening game, the Saints faced QB Sam Bradford, and he shredded the Saints for 341 total passing yards and a whopping 10.3 yards per pass play.
But the veteran was lost for the rest of the season with a knee injury the following week and was replaced by back-up QB Case Keenum; who has since led Minnesota to 11 more wins and a NFC North Division Championship along with the conference's #2 Playoff seed.
But now 8 weeks after he was placed on injured reserve, Bradford is expected to return to practice next week, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said on Wednesday.
Bradford was eligible to practice after spending six weeks on injured reserve but was held out. He can come off the IR list and join the active roster on Jan. 3rd (next Wednesday).
But one thing that hasn't changed:
The Minnesota defense, which remains one of THE VERY BEST in the entire NFL; and they're going to be a real problem for anyone potential opponent they play.
It's exactly why a team like the Rams (who are considered the 3rd best team in the NFC behind the Vikings and Saints) appear to be intentionally avoiding any potential match-ups against Minnesota further down the line in the upcoming weeks.
But before we start talking about a potential Saints-Vikings match-up next month, let's remember to keep things in perspective and try take it "one week at a time".
The Saints still have plenty to accomplish before worrying about a "rematch" with Minnesota, and it starts this Sunday with the regular season finale at Tampa Bay, and trying to secure their first NFC South Division Championship since the 2011 season.
Then regardless of whatever happens this Sunday, the Saints STILL in all likelihood will have to play a Wild Card Playoff game at the Superdome, against one of any 3 teams that include the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, or the Seattle Seahawks, depending on how this Sunday's final regular season games play out.
So in other words: let's not get ahead of ourselves, even if we do have a fair idea of how things appear to be "shaping up" for our Black and Gold heroes.