Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) had 1,654 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns in 14 games this season. Photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 3 (UPI) -- The New Orleans Saints own one of the best rush defenses in the NFL. They'll put that stout defensive line to the test in an NFC wild card matchup against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in New Orleans.
The Saints host the Vikings at 1:05 p.m. EST at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Vikings star running back Dalvin Cook -- who sustained a shoulder injury in Week 15 -- is expected to be used with no restrictions against the Saints. Cook ranked fourth in the NFC with 81 rushing yards per game in 2019.
"I definitely feel refreshed," Cook told reporters Wednesday. "I wouldn't put a percentage on it [health]. If I was whatever percentage, I would be out there on Sunday. I'm going to be ready to go. I'm going to be at full strength.
"I'm looking for a good football game."
The Saints (13-3) allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards in the NFL this season. The Vikings (10-6) averaged the sixth-most rushing yards per game.
"The last couple years we have been a top-tier defense," Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said. "In our locker room now, we are a top-five run defense. This is something we have prided ourselves on in 15 out of 16 games. But there is always room for improvement."
The Saints also went 13-3 last season, before falling to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship game. New Orleans began the season with a 7-1 record. They finished the regular season by winning six of their final seven games.
The Vikings are returning to the playoffs for the first time since losing in the 2018 NFC title game. Minnesota began the season at 2-2 before winning six of their next seven games. They finished the year with back-to-back losses, losing a chance to earn a first-round bye or home field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
"You have to go out each week and you have to prove it," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "We focus on the details of this week. And if we focus on playing our best game, I think we can be pretty good."
The Saints are 7.5-point favorites to win, according to Caesars. The game has an over/under of 49.5 total points.
Brees leads an offense that averaged the third-most points per game in the NFL in 2019. He started the season hot before sustaining an injury in Week 2. Teddy Bridgewater then took over and won each of his five starts in relief of Brees. The Saints star returned to action in Week 8, throwing for 373 yards and three scores in another Saints victory. Brees completed 74.8 percent of his throws for 2,979 yards, 27 scores and just four interceptions in 11 starts this season.
Brees' top target is All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas, but he also has other reliable pass catchers around the field in Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook. The Vikings will have their hands full when it comes to defending the Saints' arsenal of skill players.
"You have to give him as many looks as you can give him," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Brees. "He is very smart. He is a great competitor and extremely accurate. He moves well in the pocket. We will just have to see."
Kirk Cousins will be under center for the Vikings. The veteran quarterback threw just six interceptions this season, the lowest total of his career as a full-time starter. He also completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 3,603 yards and 26 scores. Cousins had four games this season with at least 300 passing yards. He threw multiple touchdown passes in seven of his 15 starts. The Vikings quarterback also has a solid cast of surrounding weapons in Cook, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph, but the Saints could be uniquely suited to contain those weapons.
The Saints have had a two-man rushing attack for the last several seasons. This year Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray handled most of the carries. Kamara ended the regular season with 797 rushing yards and five scores, while Murray recorded 637 yards and five scores. Kamara had 533 receiving yards and a score on 81 catches. Murray had 235 receiving yards and a score on 34 receptions.
The Saints will likely split the running back workload once again in the wild card round, with Brees using Kamara out of the backfield as an explosive pass-catching option. The Vikings tied for third in allowing just eight rushing touchdowns on the season, but this tandem could give them trouble.
Cook looked to be running away with the NFL rushing title through the first half of the season. The Vikings star had 375 yards and four scores through his first three games. Cook failed to eclipse 100 rushing yards in a game after Week 7. The Vikings will need their star player to get rolling early and be productive in order to have a chance in this matchup.
The Vikings have great depth in their pass-catching options, with Diggs, Thielen and Rudolph. Diggs had 1,103 yards and six scores in 15 games this season. Thielen was limited due to injury, but had 418 yards and six scores on 30 receptions in 10 games in 2019. The Vikings need Thielen to be at full strength and very productive in order to take attention away from Diggs in this matchup.
Rudolph was having a very slow start in 2019, before erupting from Week 6 through Week 13. The Vikings veteran had six touchdowns during that stretch, helping guide the team to a 4-2 record in those games. The Vikings are clearly a better team offensively when Rudolph is involved, especially in the red zone.
Thomas was the best wide receiver in the NFL this season. He led the league with 1,725 yards and an NFL-record 149 catches, while scoring nine touchdowns for the third time in four seasons. Thomas also averaged a league-best 107.8 yards per game. Thomas' most ridiculous stretch of the season was probably Week 7 through Week 16, when he scored a touchdown and/or had 100 yards in eight of nine games. Brees will heavily target Thomas in this match and there isn't likely much the Vikings can do to stop him.
Jared Cook joined the Saints this off-season. The veteran tight end was a reliable and productive addition. Cook had nine catches and 705 yards on 65 receptions in his 14 appearances this season. Cook also led the team with 16.4 yards per catch this season, meaning he is much more than just a red zone threat. The Saints will also look to Ted Ginn and Tre'Quon Smith when they need a big play. Taysom Hill is also likely to see some action and could be used as a passer, runner or pass catcher in Sean Payton's high-octane offense.
The Saints and Vikings have different defensive strengths. The Vikings have the more balanced defense, after allowing the 15th-fewest pass yards per game and 13th-fewest rush yards per game. The Saints ranked 20th in allowing 233 pass yards per game, while limiting opposing offenses to 91 rush yards per game, the fourth-best mark in the NFL.
The Vikings allowed the fifth-fewest points per game, while the Saints ranked 13th in that category. But the Saints edged the Vikings in takeaway differential this season, posting a mark of +15, compared to Minnesota's +11.
The Vikings allowed 14 points or less in six games this season. The Saints allowed 14 points or less in five games, including in two of their last three regular-season contest. Cam Jordan led the Saints' pass rush with 15.5 sacks this season. The Saints defense also includes Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who will likely try to take away either Diggs or Thielen in this matchup.
While Jordan leads the Saints in sacks, Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter isn't far behind. Hunter ranks fourth in the NFL -- one spot behind Jordan -- with 14.5 sacks this year. The Vikings' aggressive pass rush ranked fifth in sacks this season, while the Saints ranked third, with 51 sacks in 2019.
While Lattimore is the Saints' best defensive back, New Orleans has still been victimized by big plays. The Saints allowed 13 catches of 40 yards or more in 2019, while the Vikings allowed just seven such plays.
The Saints boast two Pro Bowl special teams players entering the first week of the playoffs in kicker Wil Lutz and return man Deonte Harris. Lutz made an NFC-best 32 field goals out of 36 attempts this season. He also made an NFL-leading 48 extra points. The Saints kicker made 13 of his 15 attempts from 40 yards to 49 yards and three of his five attempts from at least 50 yards.
Vikings kicker Dan Bailey also had a solid season. Bailey was a perfect 3 for 3 on field goal attempts of 50 yards or longer. He also made 27 of his 29 overall field goal attempts.
The Saints also have a former Pro Bowl punter in Thomas Morstead, who averaged 46.2 yards per punt this season. Vikings punter Britton Colquitt averaged 45.2 yards per punt in 2019.
Harris averaged a ridiculous 26.8 yards per return on 24 kick returns this season. He also scored on a punt return. Harris earned an All-Pro selection for his special teams production in 2019. The Vikings have Ameer Abdullah as one of their return men. Abdullah averaged a respectable 25 yards per kick return this season.
"Our group is doing a good job of preparing right now for a very good Saints special teams unit," Vikings special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf said. "They are very well coached. They have a Pro Bowl returner, Pro Bowl kicker, former Pro Bowl punter, they are loaded as far as talent goes. We are excited about the opportunity to play this Sunday."
Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
When: 1:05 p.m. EST Sunday
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans