Saints, Vikings do it again in playoffs on parallel lines
We have been here before.
The New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings hook up in the playoffs this Sunday, this time in the Divisional round of the NFC postseason.
This is the fourth playoff meeting between the two teams with Minnesota holding a 2-1 advantage with the one Saints victory being the most important one of those games.
When analyzing the matchup, it is easy to conjure up memories of the past.
The 2000 New Orleans Saints were a great story.
In Jim Haslett’s first season as head coach, the team lost its starting quarterback, Jeff Blake, midway through the season. They had to go with an unproven, inexperienced reserve in Aaron Brooks. They also lost Ricky Williams and Joe Horn down the stretch.
Playing without their three biggest weapons, the Saints somehow made the playoffs as the NFC South champion and shocked the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams in the opening round of the playoffs.
That game was reminiscent of the Carolina game yesterday.
New Orleans led 31-7 and held on for dear life, winning 31-28 when future Saint Az-Zahir Hakim “dropped the ball” on a punt which previously unknown commodity Brian Milne became a household name, at least for a day, with the fumble recovery to seal the win. The win was the first in franchise history. Chris Reis would mirror Milne in 2010, rising from obscurity to fame with his fumble recovery on “Ambush” to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV.
The next week, the Saints limped into the Metrodome and were whipped by the Vikings 34-16, simply outmanned.
Someone named Dave Stachelski caught a touchdown pass from Brooks in the game. Remember him? Stachelski caught two passes as a Saint and in his brief NFL career.
Williams did play, but on a limited basis, rushing six times for 14 yards as Terry Allen got the start at running back. Remember him? The top wide receiver was Willie Jackson. Remember him?
For the Vikings, Daunte Culpepper threw for 302 yards and three scores, two to Randy Moss. Those names are easy to remember.
Yesterday, the Saints led 21-6 in the first half and 31-19 with just over five minutes to play and hung on for dear life.
On Jan. 24, 2010, the Saints overcame the Vikings 31-28 in overtime in the NFC championship game to reach the Super Bowl.
In that game, the Saints and Vikings had their key pieces on the field and it produced a classic. Drew Brees threw for three touchdowns. Brett Favre passed for 310 yards and a touchdown but suffered two crucial interceptions. The Vikings lost due to five turnovers.
Going back to the 1987 season, the Saints enjoyed a magical run to their first-ever winning season under Jim Mora. They ripped on nine straight wins to close the regular season after a player strike and got to host the Vikings in the opening round of the playoffs on Jan. 3.
The Saints started very well, as Bobby Hebert connected with Eric Martin on a 10-yard touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead. That, for all intents and purposes, was it for the Saints on that day as Minnesota dominated the rest of the way in an easy 44-10 victory.
The Saints were spent and not quite ready to deal with the team speed Minnesota had.
Anthony Carter caught a pair of touchdown passes and the Vikings amassed 459 yards against a very good Saints defense. Hebert and Dave Wilson were each intercepted twice and the Saints lost two fumbles for an alarming six turnovers, flipping the script of the NFC championship game. The Vikings took total advantage. The Saints had the ball for just 18:42 as the Vikings controlled all aspects of the game.
Now, the 2017 Saints head to Minnesota.
Of course, this is a banged-up team as well.
Andrus Peat was carted off Sunday. There is no Coby Fleener. On defense, Alex Okafor, A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone, Hau’oli Kikaha and Kenny Vaccaro are gone from the equation. Nick Fairley and Delvin Breaux never hit the field this season.
Were the Saints healthy, it would be easy to like them winning Sunday.
Without key pieces, the Saints are better than a field goal underdog, certainly not overwhelming odds.
In the playoff game in 2001, Minnesota was an eight-point favorite. While there was hope among fans on that day, there was the reality that the Vikings were simply better.
While the Vikings have been a better overall team than the Saints this year, the feeling is much different, despite the Saints’ injuries.
Case Keenum has played very well for the Vikings. Still, he has always been a journeyman, a backup until this season. Give him credit.
Still, he has not played in a playoff game previously while Brees has played in 12 such games and won a Super Bowl. With the Saints, Brees is 7-4 in playoff action and he is 7-5 overall, dating to his days with the Chargers. Of course, the road record is 1-4, with the only win coming at Philadelphia on Jan. 4, 2014, following the 2013 season.
The Vikings won the season-opening meeting 29-19 at U.S. Bank Stadium. The new-look, young Saints defense looked lost at times, allowing receivers to run free. Sam Bradford was near perfect, completing 27-of-32 passes (84%) for 346 yards and three touchdowns for a rating of 143 and a QBR of 95.2. Prized rookie Dalvin Cook rushed 22 times for 127 yards.
It is notable that Bradford and Cook will not play against the Saints this Sunday.
It will be Keenum and Latavius Murray, respectively, that the Saints must contend with. Murray has been solid, rushing for 100 yards in two games while accumulating 842 yards and eight touchdowns rushing. Keenum has completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He has thrown for over 300 yards twice and has a rating of 98.3.
Conversely, Brees has completed an NFL-record 72 percent of his passes for 4,334 yards and 23 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He has thrown for over 300 yards four times and has a rating of 103.9.
There was the distraction of Adrian Peterson in the first meeting this year and for the first couple of weeks of the season. Once that distraction was eradicated, the Saints’ running game and offense took off.
Things have changed, to say the least.
While the Vikings are the better overall team over the balance of the season, the Saints have a real shot this time around.
New Orleans must muster a running game, something the Saints could not do against Carolina. The Panthers were determined to stop the run with fifty looks and seven, eight and even nine-man boxes. They made a concerted commitment to take Alvin Kamara away and were successful.
Minnesota is outstanding on defense. The Vikings have held opponents to a 25.2 percent conversion rate on third down this season. The Saints convert on third down right at 37 percent of the time.
Still, the Saints have Brees and he can still carve up an opposing defense, particularly when the likes of Josh Hill and Brandon Coleman step up to compliment Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Jr. Mark Ingram and Kamara.
Despite the debilitating injuries New Orleans has endured, the Saints have a real shot this time around. They are familiar with the Vikings. They are familiar with U.S. Bank Stadium.
They would like to become more familiar with the stadium and with Minneapolis, the site of Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4.
Of course, the Vikings would like to become the first-ever team to “host” a Super Bowl in its home stadium. They would like to erase the bad taste and memory of the NFC Championship game loss in 2010, a game they felt they should have won. First, they would like to erase the lingering memory of the 1998 season NFC Championship game on Jan. 17, 1999.
That is when the Atlanta Falcons overcame the Vikings with a late touchdown in regulation and future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee and Saints Hall of Fame and Saints Ring of Honor recipient Morten Andersen calmly booted a 38-yard field goal in overtime to give the Falcons a 30-27 victory, keeping the Vikings out of the Super Bowl, another indirect connection between the Saints and Vikings.
Minnesota has reached the Super Bowl four times, but has have never won the big game. The last appearance was Super Bowl XI on Jan. 9, 1977.
There are clearly a host of parallels, comparisons to draw this time around. The Vikings are rested. The Saints are playoff-tested. There is much invested and to be contested. It would be nice to have a headline of “New Orleans bested Minnesota” on Sunday night.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE Owner and CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Football Foundation, College…