NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (12-5) AT MINNESOTA VIKINGS (13-3)
SERIES HISTORY: 33rd all-time meeting, fourth playoff meeting. Vikings lead overall series, 21-11 and 12-3 in Minnesota, including a 29-19 victory in the season opener Sept. 11 in U.S. Bank Stadium. The Saints had won the last three meetings, including the last one in Minneapolis (42-20 in 2011). New Orleans has played 17 playoff games and this matchup will allow the Vikings to break a tie with the Eagles for most frequent opponent. Each of the previous playoff games against the Vikings was historic. The first marked New Orleans' debut in the playoffs in the franchise's 21st season as Minnesota prevailed, 44-10, in a wild-card game in the Superdome. The second meeting came after the 2000 season and was the Saints' first appearance in a divisional game, a week after their first playoff victory (31-28 over the Rams) and ending with a 34-16 Vikings victory. The most recent came in the 2009 NFC Championship, when the Saints prevailed 31-28 in overtime in the Superdome to reach their only Super Bowl, which they won two weeks later.
KEYS TO THE GAME: This game should feature a lot of great talent, outstanding coaching and one of the most unexpected quarterback battles in the history of the NFL playoffs.
On one side, Drew Brees gives the Saints something no other team in the NFC playoffs has -- a quarterback that led his team to a Super Bowl championship. He was the key factor in the Saints' 31-26 victory over Carolina in a wild-card playoff game last Sunday.
On the other side, Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum is making his playoff debut after the most improbable NFL breakout season since Kurt Warner played his way out of a grocery store job. At this point, Keenum was supposed to be wearing a baseball cap and holding the clipboard on the sideline while Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater wore helmets and threw footballs on the field.
But when Keenum was the last man standing, he did so damned well that Bridgewater returned from physically unable to perform only to don that baseball cap wile Keenum kept flinging footballs. Keenum is a veteran of missed opportunities, including going undrafted after a record college career, then serving as a disposable place-holder, or worse, with the Houston Texans (twice) and Los Angeles Rams. So, when the Vikings gave him the football, he refused to give it back. With the help of a great defense, he led the Vikings to a 13-3 record, the best season in Minnesota since 1998 when Randall Cunningham, Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Robert Smith helped destroy NFL records.
Maybe Keenum was in the right place at the right time with the right coaches and teammates and is a beneficiary of all that. Regardless, he didn't miss this opportunity. When Minnesota needed somebody to step in at quarterback, Keenum became the envy of other QB-needy teams, like Green Bay, Indianapolis, Miami, Arizona and, oh yes, Houston.
Turns out, Keenum and Brees, each less than an inch above or below being six-feet tall, think they have a lot in common and the result is one of mutual admiration.
"I always root for guys like that, kind of the undersized guy coming out that nobody wants to give any credit and just always plays with a chip on his shoulder," Brees said this week. "I think there's just kind of that mentality of having the chip on your shoulder, always being told you couldn't do it for whatever reason, height whatever. But I love the way that guy plays, and he's played extremely well for his team."
Said Keenum of Brees: "Great player, even better human being. He's obviously a guy I've looked up to for a long time. I study him just about every offseason, just looking at things that he does well mechanically, decision-making. An elite guy that has been playing at a really high level for a really long time."
Despite the presence of Brees, the Saints must be balanced on offense and prevent big plays on defense. Though they beat Carolina last week, the Saints ran fewer plays and possessed the ball less than half the time. The more they have the ball, the better they are able to utilize Brees and his weapons. New Orleans had just eight possessions in the first meeting and that didn't work out well.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Vikings FS Harrison Smith vs. Saints QB Drew Brees. Smith, a first-team All-Pro selection, is one of the more versatile defenders in the league. He has 93 tackles, five interceptions and 1.5 sacks this season. He's also instinctive and magnificent when it comes to disguising coverages. But Brees is a different matchup than most. He's seen it all and isn't likely to be confused by Smith's antics. But Smith is healthy, energized and up to the task of matching wits and skill with one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
--Vikings RT Rashod Hill vs. Saints DE Cameron Jordan. Hill probably will make his sixth start at right tackle as the Vikings keep Mike Remmers at right guard and possibly move Joe Berger over to left guard. Hill is a bigger, long-armed body with good balance. Plucked off the Jaguars' practice squad late last season, he's been one of the bigger surprises on the team this year. Jordan, a first-team All-Pro pick this year, rushes from both sides. He had a career-high 13 sacks this year. In Week 1, he had the only two hits and the only sack on Sam Bradford. That sack came over Remmers on the right side.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Saints running back Mark Ingram II. It could just as easily be Alvin Kamara because the two backs are equally capable of having a significant impact on the game. The Vikings are among the best in the NFL at defending the run and defending the pass, so the Saints might struggle to move the ball consistently. But Ingram's physicality both as a runner and a receiver will be important and the Saints will have to keep utilizing him in both areas even if the yards come in small chunks.
FAST FACTS: Saints -- QB Drew Brees has four career playoff games with at least 375 passing yards, tied with Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner for second-most all-time, behind Peyton Manning (5) ... RB Mark Ingram II set career highs in yards rushing (1,124) and yards from scrimmage (1,540) ... RB Alvin Kamara ranked 2nd in NFL with 14 total TDs and joined HOFer Gale Sayers (1965) as only rookies in NFL history with at least five rushing TDs (8), five TD catches (5) and a KR-TD (1) ... WR Michael Thomas ranked 3rd in NFL with 104 catches ... CB Marshon Lattimore led team and all NFL rookies with 5 INTs ... Vonn Bell ranked 1st among NFL safeties with career-high 4.5 sacks in 2017. Vikings -- QB Case Keenum set career highs in yards passing (3,547), TD passes (22) and passer rating (98.3). In 7 home starts this season, was 6-1 with 8 TDs vs. 2 INTs for 100.1 rating ... RB Latavius Murray is tied for 2nd in NFL with 20 rushing TDs since 2016 ... RB Jerick McKinnon gained career-high 991 yards from scrimmage, 5 TDs (3 rush, 2 rec.) ... WR Adam Thielen was 2nd in NFC with 1,276 yards receiving and fourth with 91 receptions ... TE Kyle Rudolph tied for 2nd among NFL TEs with 8 TD catches ... DE Everson Griffen tied for 4th in NFL with career-high 13 sacks ... S Harrison Smith only player in NFC with at least 70 tackles (78), 5 INTs (5) and sack (1.5) ... LB Erik Kendricks led team with 113 tackles, his 2nd consecutive season over 100.
PREDICTION: Hard to pick against Brees, but Saints could not keep control of Carolina last week and Vikings are a better overall team than Panthers. Also hard to pick against the Vikings playing at home with the chance to host the Super Bowl in their own house.
OUR PICK: Vikings, 35-31
-- Frank Cooney