Revenge for the Minneapolis Miracle is on the minds of the New Orleans Saints this week in the first of two NFC Wild Card Weekend matchups on Sunday. What most people forget about that game is that the Vikings were up 17-0 as 5.5-point favorites at halftime. The adjustments made by the Saints turned it into a game and had New Orleans just seconds away from advancing to the NFC Championship Game.
This time, the venue is different. The records are essentially flipped. The quarterback for the Vikings is also different. Other than that, a lot of the major components from one of the most stunning endings in sports history are on hand in the rematch.
The rematch sees the Saints favored by either 7.5 or 8, depending on your preferred book. The total is on the rise from 47 to as high as 49 in the market.
This game belongs in the Divisional Weekend, but them’s the breaks when the Wild Cards are both 10-game winners. The Vikings had a +104 point differential, but actually lost the NFC North by three games to the Packers, who had a +63 point differential and enter the playoffs with the second-fewest points of any playoff team. It didn’t help that the Vikings lost both head-to-head meetings.
The Saints were actually part of a trio of 13-win teams, but the 49ers won the head-to-head meeting and the Packers had a higher win percentage in conference play. As a result, New Orleans has to play at home in the Superdome this weekend while the 49ers get a very badly needed rest and the Packers get a very fortunate break. The Saints, who were without Drew Brees for five games in the middle of the season, actually had the second-best point differential in the NFC.
This should be an excellent matchup. The Saints are +0.6 yards per play and the Vikings are +0.6 yards per play. The Saints had 5.9 yards per play on offense and allowed 5.3 yards per play on defense. The Vikings had 5.8 yards per play on offense and allowed 5.2 yards per play on defense. Minnesota played a much weaker schedule than the Saints, which sure seems to be factored into the line for this one. If you look at this game statistically, it is really hard to justify the Saints as more than a touchdown favorite, even with the playoff HFA and the better record.
The pass rush could determine this one. New Orleans heads into this game fifth in Pressure% per Pro-Football Reference, while the Vikings finished in the bottom 10. In fairness, the Saints did blitz more often than the Vikings.
The Vikings were third in yards after catch allowed and had the second-fewest missed tackles in the league this season. The Saints were in the bottom 10 in YAC allowed, though they were top five in fewest missed tackles. This is a game where the margins appear to be fairly thin, all things considered. These are two extremely well-coached teams with Mike Zimmer on the road sideline and Sean Payton on the home sideline.
The Vikings were in the top five in takeaways with 31 and the Saints led the NFL with just eight giveaways. They finished up the regular season +15 in turnover margin, while the Vikings were +11.
Perhaps people don’t realize how good this Kevin Stefanski offense got as the season went along. Kirk Cousins had a 23/4 TD/INT ratio from Week 5 on and completed 70% of his passes. That was while his top two targets, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, took turns being hurt. If you are a Vikings detractor, it is perfectly fair to point to the fact that Cousins and the Vikings lost to the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Packers in that span, which do represent the three best teams they played from Week 5 to Week 16. Cousins was not particularly good in any of those three games.
Thielen only played 10 games and was really limited when he did play, as he had just 30 receptions. Fortunately Kyle Rudolph became a dominant force at tight end again and Diggs led the way with 63 catches. Dalvin Cook is a huge part of the Minnesota offense as well. Cook had 53 catches for 519 yards to go along with his 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Cook has missed the last two weeks, so we’ll see what sort of shape he is in for this one.
There could be some worries about the Saints defense. Even though they had the fifth-best opponents’ starting field position, they wound up 16th in points per drive allowed. New Orleans also finished in the bottom half of the league in red zone TD% against. The Vikings were second in the NFL.
Brees missed five games from Week 3 to Week 7. He returned prior to the bye week and had a huge game against the Cardinals in a 31-9 win. He was fine against the Falcons after the bye, but was sacked six times in the loss. After that humbling performance as a team, Brees took over and became the leader that we’ve all come to expect. Over his last seven games, Brees posted a 22/1 TD/INT ratio, was only sacked five times, and completed over 74% of his throws.
Those games, however, came against Tampa Bay, Carolina twice, Atlanta, San Francisco, Indianapolis, and Tennessee. The Vikings have a much better defense than just about all of those teams. Brees did throw five touchdown passes and had 349 yards against the 49ers in that 48-46 thriller. Minnesota does have some injury concerns in the secondary with Jayron Kearse and Mackensie Alexander, but it seems like they could be in better shape than they have been the last few weeks.
Pick: Minnesota Vikings +8
I can’t figure out what I’m missing with this line. It seems remarkably high given the statistical body of work for both teams. New Orleans did play the tougher schedule, but also doesn’t really have anything that would classify as a signature win. Neither do the Vikings, so the teams are even in that regard.
The Vikings +8 as a straight bet makes the most sense here and the over could be in play as well. You can also pair the Saints -2 with the Bills +8.5 to get a really strong Stanford Wong teaser for the Wild Card Weekend that goes through 3 and 7 to hit the two most important numbers in the NFL.