It goes without saying that in all of the games that the New Orleans Saints have played in their "magical" 2017 season that's still ongoing with this Sunday's NFC Divisional Playoff at Minnesota, that no other opponent has been as tough to play (or beat) for New Orleans, than the Vikings are.
That shouldn't come as much of a surprise, given that the Vikings beat the Saints by a score of 29-19 in the season-opening game at Minnesota on Monday Night Football back on September 11th of 2017; in a contest where Minnesota was in total and complete control for a majority of the time on the scoreboard and on the stat sheet — but gave up a late TD to New Orleans in "garbage time" to make the final score seem to be closer than it really was.
Additionally, since that opening game the Vikings have gone on to finish with a 13-3 record, win the NFC North Division title, and earned the #2 overall Playoff seed in the NFC.
They also boast the NFL's #1 overall rated defense, in yards (275.9) and points (15.8) allowed per game. And they're especially efficient at shutting down the running game, where they rank 2nd in the NFL (83.5 rushing yards per game allowed) at 3.67 yards per carry (ranked 5th overall).
So, in other words, with a stout defensive Front 7 and a couple of players in their elite secondary who can cover (and do it WELL), opposing quarterbacks often are forced to have to make quick decisions and more often than not: are unable to find any easy solutions to the problems that Minnesota can cause.
And Drew Brees and the Saints' loss back in September to these same Vikings is a testament to that very fact.
Most NFL fans aren't old enough to remember the Vikings’ great "Purple People Eaters" defenses of the late 1960's and into the early 1970's, but what Minnesota head coach and reputable defensive guru Mike Zimmer has put together this season is the best and most complete Vikings defense that many of us "old-timers" have ever seen.
Led by defensive stalwarts Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes; the Vikings are THE team to beat — if the Saints have any hope to make it all the way to the Super Bowl next month.
So the question must be asked: if you can't beat Minnesota by either running OR throwing the ball, then HOW do you actually beat them?
There are a handful of things that need to happen, but the biggest thing is execution-wise.
Quite simply: the Saints need to play the "perfect game".
And what does playing the "perfect game" entail, exactly?
Obviously turnovers is the first one. The Saints MUST win the turnover battle, if they hope to have any chance of winning in what promises to be a very unwelcoming and hostile environment at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Which means of course that the Saints defense will need to either force or create some turnovers, and if that doesn't work, then they'll need to do the next best thing: which is to make Vikings QB Case Keenum, who didn't face the Saints in the September game, as uncomfortable as they possibly can and render him ineffective.
Keenum is set to make his postseason debut on Sunday. After Minnesota starting QB Sam Bradford suffered a knee injury in Week #2 that later put him on injured reserve, Keenum stepped in and started 14 games for the Vikings; and went on to have his best NFL season so far of his 6-year career.
Keenum ranked 2nd in the NFL with 67.6 percent completions and his 98.3 passer rating ranked 7th. So to say that the Vikings offense never "skipped a beat" with Keenum taking over their offense, is a true statement.
Keenum is an efficient quarterback who has managed to keep his mistakes to a minimum; and with the backing of a decent running game (RB Latavious Murray has filled in admirably for starting Vikings RB Dalvin Cook, who was hurt and lost for the remainder of the season) along with Minnesota's top-ranked defense, he hasn't been forced to take on any additional responsibilities or have to "carry" the Vikings offense on his shoulders.
But that doesn't mean that his effectiveness can't be limited, which in turn makes the Saints defense's ability to get pressure him and attempt to "rattle" him every time that he drops back in the pocket, all the more critical to their success (or failure).
And then of course there are other factors, such as penalties, time of possession, special teams (the Saints can't afford any fumbled or muffed punt returns or kick returns; and Wil Lutz needs to be accurate on his field goal attempts) and of course the glaring issue that has taken over the headlines in recent weeks: the Saints offense's inability to consistently covert on 3rd Down.
As observed yesterday by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill: the Vikings have only allowed teams to convert on 25.2 percent of their 3rd Down Conversion attempts, which doesn’t bode well for a New Orleans team that has made good on only 37.6 percent of its third downs.
And Underhill notes: it also helps that Minnesota has a talented front seven and a scheme that puts it to use, and a secondary, headlined by All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes and All-Pro safety Harrison Smith, that doesn’t surrender much.
So it simply means that the Saints WILL need to be better at converting their 3rd Down opportunities on Sunday. There's no way they'll be able to get away with a 2 for 8 (25% success rate) conversion rate against the Vikings, as they were able to do last week against the Panthers.
Again: it's all a part of playing a "perfect game", and the Saints will need to bring their best performance of the entire season — all encapsulated in one 60 minute period — to advance to the NFC Championship Game for the 3rd time in their 51-year history, next week.
The Saints arguably had their VERY BEST performance of the year in their Week #10 win over the Buffalo Bills, in a game where the Saints routed a then-undefeated-at-home Playoff contender in their own home stadium (one of the toughest venues for visiting teams in all of Pro Football), in a game that many doubted they could win (sound familiar, Saints fans?).
The Saints virtually DESTROYED the Bills in all phases; in a convincing 47-10 win that was as complete and thorough of an "ass-whipping" (on both sides of the ball) that you will ever see in the National Football League, in this day and age.
The Saints rushed for over 300 yards and 6 — count them: SIX — rushing TD's on that day. The 6 rushing TD's in a single game set a Saints franchise record in the process.
If you would have told someone before the game that the New Orleans would have beaten another Playoff contender by 40 plus points (30 points in the 2nd half alone) in that team's own home stadium with Drew Brees not throwing a SINGLE TD pass, they would have thought you were completely insane.
The Saints didn't have to punt once in the entire game; and at one point ran the ball for 24 consecutive plays in the 3rd and 4th quarter before they finally had to pass again.
The Bills simply appeared to be over-matched, and completely overwhelmed; and it was all because the Saints EXECUTED the game-plan with near flawlessness and kept mistakes to the bare minimum.
It's that same type of attention to detail and near-perfect execution, that they'll need once again this Sunday in Minneapolis against the Vikings.
But — CAN they actually pull it off?