The New Orleans Saints are now only a few days away from their their NFC Divisional Playoff meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota against the #2 Playoff seed Vikings, in a game that the Saints must win in order to keep their dreams of winning a Super Bowl alive, at least for another week.
The Saints have won only 3 of 16 games ever in Minneapolis EVER in their 51-year history of the franchise (including the 2017 season-opening 29-19 loss to the Vikings back in September), and so it goes without saying that the Saints' road to the Super Bowl will not be an easy one.
However, to say that the Saints' chances of winning this Sunday are impossible isn't true by any stretch of the imagination.
Both of these teams' overall fortunes have evolved in the months since that early season match-up; and while many of the participants from that Week #1 contest will again have prominent roles in this contest, how the game will eventually unfold could involve an entirely different set of circumstances this time around.
It's with that in mind, that this morning the Saints News Network presents our 5 "bold predictions" for this Sunday's Divisional Playoff showdown in Minneapolis against the Minnesota Vikings.
And we'll start with #5 first, and work our way down to #1.....
#5. SAINTS NEED TO GET OFF TO A "GOOD START" TO WIN THE GAME, AND THEY GET ONE BY TAKING ADVANTAGE OF TWO 2 EARLY 1st QUARTER SCORING OPPPORTUNITIES
Part of the reason why the Saints have only 3 games ever in Minnesota is because of turnovers; and the last time that the Saints played at Minnesota in the Divisional Playoffs (January 6, 2001), it was then-Saints QB Aaron Brooks' 2 interceptions that paved the way for a dominant 34-16 win by the Vikings.
As it is: the Saints are 1-6 all-time on the road in the Playoffs. In their seven road playoff games, they have 18 turnovers and just three takeaways, and they'll certainly have to limit turnovers in this game if they expect to have any chance whatsoever of winning this contest and only for the 4th time ever inside the great state of Minnesota.
Another important factor for New Orleans' chances at winning this game: getting off to a "good start", which is exactly what happens when Brees hits tight end Josh Hill with a 3-yard TD pass on the game's opening drive, and a Wil Lutz 38-yard field goal (following a Saints "takeaway" on a Marcus Williams interception of Vikings QB Case Keenum) gives the Saints an early 10-0 lead as the 1st Quarter draws to a close.
#4. MINNESOTA TIGHT END KYLE RUDOLPH IS A "THORN IN THE SIDE" OF THE SAINTS PASS DEFENSE
The Saints are just coming off a game in which the "Saints Killer"— Carolina tight end Greg Olsen — just gave the Saints pass defense fits with an 8 reception, 107-yard game and a TD to his credit, as he proved yet again how vulnerable New Orleans' pass coverage still is while attempting to cover tight ends with top-notch receiving skills.
The last time that these two teams met back in September, Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph (who has receiving skills on the same level as Olsen's) caught a TD pass that aided Minnesota's 29-19 win, and Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur (after seeing how Olsen fared the week before) decides to attack the Saints' ongoing vulnerability in defending the middle of the field.
While the Saints pass defense is preoccupied with stopping Vikings WR's Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, it's Rudolph that becomes a "thorn in their side"; as he catches New Orleans out of position to defend him successfully a handful of times, on his way to a clutch 7-catch, 103-yard performance that practically drives Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen crazy on the sidelines.
#3. FOR THE SECOND STRAIGHT WEEK, THE SAINTS RUNNING GAME IS "SHUT DOWN', THIS TIME BY MINNESOTA'S ELITE DEFENSE
There can't be any doubt that one of (if not THE) biggest deciding factor in this game on Sunday will be the Vikings' ability to contain Saints RB Alvin Kamara in both the running and passing games.
Back in September when these two teams played, the Vikings defense did very well against the the Saints running game (60 total yards on 21 carries); although to be completely fair, the Saints offense was still struggling to find its identity, which it eventually did with the trade of veteran RB Adrian Peterson to Arizona a few weeks later.
Nevertheless, the Vikings run defense has been elite all season long, and will likely follow a very similar game-plan that Carolina's defense did last week against Kamara and teammate Mark Ingram; as the Panthers "shut down" the Saints RB's for a grand total of 41 yards on 22 carries.
You had better believe that Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will be sure to key on Kamara to limit his opportunities. Look for multiple players, including Vikings LB's Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, to lock onto Kamara in a concerted effort to limit his production.
As a result: the Saints running game gets stopped dead in its tracks, for a second straight Playoff game.
#2. SAINTS WIDE RECEIVER MICHAEL THOMAS AND VIKINGS ALL-PRO CORNERBACK XAVIER RHODES HAVE AN EPIC ONE-ON-ONE BATTLE
If the Vikings can successfully "shut down" the Saints RB duo of Ingram and Kamara, then once again as they were forced to last week: New Orleans will be forced to rely on the arm of QB Drew Brees.
Obviously, Brees (who tuns 39 this coming Monday) remains quite the viable threat — and his 376 passing yards and 2 TD's served as a testament to the fact. Brees can still sling it when needed to, and the Saints more than likely will be forced to rely on him and the passing game again in this contest, if the Vikings are able to successfully contain the run.
Which of course means that Vikings All-Pro CB Xavier Rhodes will likely draw the assignment once again of covering Saints #1 WR threat Michael Thomas most of the game.
Coverage by Rhodes nearly guarantees limited production, as the former Florida State star has shut down All-Pro receivers consistently all season long; including Thomas himself back in Week #1 when he limited the Saints 2nd-year star to 5 catches for 45 total yards on 8 targets.
But despite their epic battle in this "rematch" of elite players, this time it's Thomas who gets the better of Rhodes, with 7 catches for 91 yards that includes a clutch TD reception late in the 4th quarter.
#1. THIS GAME PREDICTABLY GOES "DOWN TO THE WIRE", AND WITH LESS THAN 2 MINUTES REMAINING, MINNESOTA HAS THE BALL WHILE CLINGING TO A 2-POINT LEAD AND FACES A 3rd-DOWN-AND-10 SITUATION — WHEN SUDDENLY.......
All signs point to a Minnesota victory in this contest, and the Vikings look to be an overwhelming favorite to "hold serve" at home and advance to the NFC Championship Game.
Unfortunately for them, no one delivered the message to New Orleans that they aren't supposed to win this game, and despite several factors working against the Saints (like no running game to speak of), it's because of jumping out to that early lead they've been able to keep the score close throughout the length of the contest.
After the Saints have scored on a 22-yard Brees-to-Thomas TD to pull to within 2 points (a 26-24 Vikings lead), Minnesota has the ball back inside of the 2-Minute Warning and is facing a 3-down-and-10 situation, but only needs a conversion to force the Saints to use their final time-out, and essentially win the game by getting the 1st Down.
But Keenum's 3rd down pass attempt to Vikings WR Adam Theilen — who TORCHED the Saints the last time the two teams met back in September for 157 yards on 10 catches — is batted away for an incompletion by Saints CB Ken Crawley, and the Vikings are left with no choice but to punt from their own 29-yard line with 1:22 remaining on the game clock.
The Saints get the ball back with one last shot at pulling off a win and a chance to get to the NFC Championship Game, but need to get at least within a decent distance for Lutz to attempt a game-winning field goal attempt.
In the NFL Playoffs, it's often believed that the sport's biggest "superstars" make the biggest plays in the biggest of moments — and on a 2-down-and-8 from their own 22-yard line, Alvin Kamara delivers with a fantastic "juke" of two Vikings defenders on a screen pass, to get the ball past mid-field and into Minnesota territory for a critical 1st Down conversion down to their 41-yard line, inside of a minute remaining.
The Saints then force Minnesota to use up both of their last two remaining time-outs with back-to-back running plays, but are unable to convert a 3rd-Down-and-4 situation with only :38 seconds left on the game clock.
Saints head coach Sean Payton allows the clock to tick down to 3 seconds remaining, and utilizes his final time-out before sending Lutz out onto the field for a potential 52-yard game-winning kick, as the respective teams, their fan-bases, and the entire Pro Football world awaits nervously with baited breath.
As the ball is snapped, Lutz's kick appears to be a bit off trajectory and seems to be "hooking" off to the right — but then it suddenly "snakes" back towards the left and narrowly passes just within the right-side of the goal post — as the Saints sideline erupts in jubilation.
For the 3rd time in their 51-year history, the New Orleans Saints are going to the NFC Championship Game..........