Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
For two teams in different divisions, the Vikings and Saints have a strong rivalry accentuated by a testy regular season blowout for the Saints in 2020 and two thrilling playoff wins for the Vikings in the 2017 and 2019 postseasons.
This stretch started with Case Keenum’s 61-yard TD pass to Stefon Diggs on the game’s final play in the Minneapolis Miracle playoff victory in January 2018. Mike Zimmer got the better of Sean Payton again two years later as Kirk Cousins hit Kyle Rudolph with an overtime TD pass to produce a wild card victory.
Payton was then very happy to run up the score on Zimmer, his former Cowboys coaching staff mate, as Alvin Kamara scored six TDs in the Saints’ 52-33 win in New Orleans on Christmas Day in 2020. A miffed Zimmer said afterward he looked forward to the next meeting with Payton’s Saints, but that won’t happen this Sunday as Kevin O’Connell, and Dennis Allen will be directing the two teams.
I have a personal favorite Vikings-Saints memory going back to the 1987 playoffs when our post-strike Vikings team came to New Orleans as underdogs and whipped the Saints 44-10. The big plays were an 84-yard punt return TD by Anthony Carter and a 44-yard Hail Mary TD pass from Wade Wilson to Hassan Jones at the end of the first half. I’ll never forget former Vikings GM and then Saints GM Jim Finks coming to our locker room after the game to congratulate us in a total touch of class after such a difficult loss.
This Sunday’s game (kickoff at 8:30 am Central time) presents a contrast of approaches on traveling to an international game six hours ahead in time zones. The Saints flew from Charlotte to London on Sunday after their 22-14 loss to the Panthers, so they had a full week adapting to the time change. The Vikings took the opposite approach, leaving Thursday night on a red-eye flight that arrived Friday morning as O’Connell and his sports science people preferred to practice at home until a Friday practice in London while trying to keep the team operating on Central time as much as possible.
I don’t think it will matter in the final analysis as the players on both sides will adapt, and adrenalin will have them ready to play. Both teams have plenty of talent, and it will come down to who avoids the big miscues, which could be a problem for the Saints with their minus 6 turnover ratio during a 1-2 start.
Here are my keys to the Vikings beating the Saints:
1. Win that turnover battle: The Saints have the No. 8 ranked offense but are only 23rd in points scored due to their turnover issues fueled by quarterback Jameis Winston’s five interceptions over the past two weeks in losses to the Bucs and Panthers. Winston did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday as he’s nursing fractures in his back and an ankle injury. Andy Dalton and/or the multi-talented Taysom Hill could replace him.
The Vikings are even this season on turnover ratio and appear to have the edge in this area if Kirk Cousins is careful with his throws as he’s been in the wins over the Packers and Lions and if the backs protect the football. The Vikings defense needs to pressure whoever is at quarterback and do it better than last week’s sackless performance. And the secondary still needs to tighten up coverage on an excellent group of Saints receivers.
2. Vikings defenders must stop Kamara and the running game and not give up so much room on underneath routes: the Eagles and Lions ran the ball effectively and tormented the Vikings linebackers and defensive backs with shallow crossing routes to beat zone coverage. The Vikings must play better against the run (which they did late in the Detroit game).
The Saints surely will follow the game plan of throwing underneath and with crossing routes to their three excellent wide receivers (if they all are able to play)—Michael Thomas (who is dealing with a foot injury), Jarvis Landry (who has a bad ankle and like Thomas has missed practice this week) and first-rounder Chris Olave who comes off 9 catches for 147 yards against Carolina.
It’s unfortunate for the Vikings secondary that second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr. has been fighting a quad injury as Cam Dantzler remains an inconsistent cover corner. Patrick Peterson comes off an excellent game, and Harrison Smith will return from his concussion which should help the secondary. Josh Metellus had a fairly good game in place of Smith and came up with the big interception to close the game, but what’s up with first-round pick Lewis Cine and his grasp of the defensive scheme?
3. Pass rush must be a factor: Za’Darius Smith has missed practice with a knee injury this week, and the Vikings need him in the lineup or D.J. Wonnum (2 sacks so far) will be counted on even more than his usual rotation role. A big game also is needed from Danielle Hunter, and more pressure up the middle from the D-line would be helpful. Putting the heat on Winston or Dalton is a key in this game.
4. Run the ball vs. 26th ranked Saints run D: Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison had good rushing days against the Lions, combining for 124 yards and a 5.2-yard average. With the Saints struggling in run defense and No. 5 in pass defense, it’s a good week for the Vikings running backs to produce behind an offensive line that can open holes. Cook returned to practice Thursday after leaving the Detroit game early with his shoulder problem. He says he’s “day-to-day,” but it appears he’s on track to play this week.
5. Coach KO moves J.J. around more while still spreading the ball: Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn had great games against Detroit as the Lions focused on Justin Jefferson with physical play in man coverage and lots of doubling, as was the case in Philly. O’Connell says he needs to find ways to shake J.J. loose, so we’ll likely see him in motion and lined up in the backfield more often. Cousins knows Jefferson must always be a big focal point, but he must continue to find Thielen, Osborn, and the tight ends if they’re open. Watch the matchup with the Saints best pass rusher Cam Jordan going against Brian O’Neill, the Vikings right tackle who is having an excellent season thus far.
6. Greg Joseph gets back on track, and is it time for a big return? It’s hard to fault Joseph for missing twice from 56 yards last week, but we’ve come to expect that he’ll come through from beyond 50 yards. Kene Nwangwu is averaging 22 yards per kickoff return which is a full 10 yards less than his 2021 average when he had two return TDs. He’s looked a bit hesitant and needs to explode upfield as he did last year.
Jeff’s Prediction: I see a game with both teams having some success and some struggles offensively with scoring in the 20s. I think the Vikings will win the turnover battle with a couple of interceptions and emerge with a 24-20 win to improve their record to 3-1 heading into another divisional home game against the Bears.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. So sad to see the devastation in Florida from Hurricane Ian, which almost caused the Bucs-Chiefs Sunday night game to be moved to Minneapolis. With the Tampa area missing the worst of Ian, the game will be played in Tampa, which will help the Bucs excellent defense with the noise factor as they try to shut down Patrick Mahomes and Company. Despite their receiver injury issues, I think Tom Brady and the Bucs prevail.
2. Another top matchup — Bills at Ravens — Josh Allen vs. Lamar Jackson as two of the early MVP candidates lead their teams. I think the Bills are the better team and will win a close road game. Another interesting game will be on Monday night as last year’s NFC title game teams meet with the 49ers hosting the Rams (I like the Rams to win a defensive battle).
3. NFL parity is in full bloom with only one unbeaten team — the Eagles, who host the surprising 2-1 Jaguars on Sunday. The Raiders are the only 0-3 team.
Further parity evidence lies in this week’s point spreads, with the Packers (10 ½ over the Patriots) the only team favored by 7 or more points.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl