Happy holidays to all! This Christmas brings a huge game between the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints. Much is on the line in this one. The Vikings need a lot to go their way in order to make the playoffs while the Saints are still in the running to get the lone first-round bye in the NFC in the new expanded playoff format. Both teams enter this game on Christmas Day with losing streaks after suffering tough losses in Weeks 14 and 15. Will either be able to get going with just two games left? Here are the keys to victory for both teams:
Keys to the game for the Minnesota Vikings:
1. Use Dalvin Cook as a decoy
It is no secret that Dalvin Cook has been so critical to what the Vikings want to do on offense, but this team has become one-dimensional at times. Against a New Orleans defense that is only giving up 95.6 rushing yards per game (fourth in the NFL) and 3.8 yards per rush attempt (third), it will be vital for Minnesota to use Cook as a decoy in order to take some of the pressure off their receivers. There have been several outings this season in which the Vikings have failed to do this, and it made their offense very predictable. Cook is currently second in the league in rushing attempts with 297, behind only Derrick Henry (321), which means the New Orleans defense will be keying in on the former Florida State Seminole. With the great seasons that Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are having, play-action could lead to big chunks through the air and make things much easier for quarterback Kirk Cousins. A failure to do this may allow Minnesota to get too complacent and be forced to play catchup like it did against the Chicago Bears in Week 15.
2. Shut down Taysom Hill
The loss of Michael Thomas at various junctures has not hurt the Saints entirely, as they have still been able to get the ball to do-it-all backup QB Taysom Hill along with Alvin Kamara. Hill’s ability to run the read-option and line up as a receiver to catch balls has never really been done by a backup QB on a consistent basis in the past decade. It is for this reason that Minnesota has to stop these types of plays. In the Wild Card game between these two teams last season, Hill was the most effective player for New Orleans, as he was able to hit players down the field on deep passes and he caught a huge touchdown for the Saints towards the end of regulation. With the Vikings giving up the ninth-most passing yards per game in the league at 252.4, it is very possible that Hill could play a huge role in this one, especially if Drew Brees has a disappointing start once again. The former BYU Cougar injects a lot of life into the Saints’ offense when it is struggling, which is why it is essential that the Vikings put an end to this. Mike Zimmer and company cannot allow the Saints to stay in the game with trick plays from Hill or else they may not be able to get out of New Orleans with a win like last season.
3. Continue to utilize Irv Smith Jr. and/or Tyler Conklin
With defenses starting to key in on rookie sensation Justin Jefferson and star receiver Adam Thielen, it has become clear that the Vikings need a solid third option in the passing game. This season, the Vikings have struggled to find a consistent third option that can really open things up. With Kyle Rudolph battling an injury as of late, this has forced tight ends Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin into the fold. Both players have shown flashes of being capable options, but they have not been consistent. The Saints have been relatively tough against tight ends this season, as they have only given up 626 yards and 7 touchdowns on 65 receptions, but with New Orleans’ defense potentially keying in more on Cook, Jefferson and Thielen, this could open things up for Smith and/or Conklin. The latter has been a larger part of the offense for Minnesota, as he has 8 receptions for 97 yards and a score in the past two games while Smith has also been a viable option over the past two games, compiling 7 receptions for 90 yards and a score. Smith has also had good games against Seattle, Atlanta and Detroit, which makes it seem clear that he could get a boost if Cousins is pressured and needs to get rid of the ball quickly. These tight ends help to stretch the field even more for the Vikings, which may be exactly what they need in order to pull off the upset.
Keys to the game for the New Orleans Saints:
1. Force Minnesota to be one-dimensional on offense
As mentioned earlier, the Vikings have a tendency to overuse Dalvin Cook on offense. The Saints need to expose this by locking down the Vikings’ Thielen and Jefferson. The former has been a force in the red zone, as he has scored 12 of his 13 touchdowns this season in the red zone, which is the most in the league. Jefferson has had an even better statistical rookie season than Randy Moss in 1998 with. Despite the fact that the Vikings have a solid passing game, averaging 239.4 passing yards per game, the Saints cannot allow the Vikings to control the tempo of the game with Cook. This was what did in the Saints against the Chiefs in Week 15, as Kansas City did a tremendous job of keeping Drew Brees and company off the field. Kansas City had 41 minutes of possession compared to only 18 for the Saints. This is not a winning formula for New Orleans, and Dennis Allen must do everything in his power to force Minnesota to become a passing team in this one if the Saints do not want a repeat of last week.
2. Take advantage of Eric Kendricks’ absence
One of the biggest reasons for the Vikings’ current two-game skid is the loss of linebacker Eric Kendricks. He flies all over the field for Minnesota and makes it much harder to run on this team. With the former UCLA Bruin out since Week 12, teams have taken advantage of that hole in the middle. Over the past three games, the Vikings have given up an average of 143.3 rushing yards per game. The Vikings especially got gashed by the Chicago Bears in Week 15, allowing 199 rushing yards with 146 coming from bruising back David Montgomery. With the Saints having a great 1-2 punch in Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, they may be able to take advantage of this void. The Vikings’ rush defense wasn’t great even with Kendricks on the field, but it certainly doesn’t help when he may not be there once again for Minnesota.
3. Establish a replacement receiver for Michael Thomas
One thing that was clear in the Saints’ Week 15 loss to the Chiefs was that Brees does not have a go-to receiver when Michael Thomas is out, which will be the case for the rest of the regular season. Sure, Kamara had an electric start to the year, especially in the passing game, but it seems like teams are starting to take away the swing passes that made Kamara so lethal. Tre’Quan Smith is currently questionable to play, so he does not appear to be a likely option right now. Emmanuel Sanders may be the perfect guy to get Brees back into a groove. Sanders was an integral part of the 49ers’ Super Bowl run last season, and he has shown that he is still a viable deep threat in New Orleans. The veteran receiver has shown that he is capable of putting together big performances, particularly in Week 5 against the Chargers where he pulled in 12 catches for 122 yards. The Vikings’ pass defense has gotten a lot better as the season has gone on, but Sanders still has the speed and experience to take advantage of the Vikings’ very young secondary. If the Saints can get Sanders going on some short passes early on, it may be able to open things up for Sanders on deep routes and potentially open up the offense more in general for other guys to step up in Thomas’ absence.
Stats from: Pro-Football-Reference