Saints get chance at redemption in playoff return to Minnesota

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints get a do-over.

After starting this season with an ugly 29-19 loss at the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1, they’ll return to U.S. Bank Stadium next Sunday in the divisional round of the playoffs, thanks to a narrow 31-26 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Sunday’s wild-card round.

The Saints (11-5 in the regular season) feel like a completely different team than the one that struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone and repeatedly broke down in the secondary in that opener (allowing Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford to throw for 346 yards and a touchdown).

But then again, the Vikings (13-3) are different, too, since they have lost Bradford and running back Dalvin Cook to injuries. They just haven’t missed a beat.

Reasons to be excited: This might be the most well-balanced Saints team in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. They’ve won a lot of games this year by running the ball with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. And they’ve won a lot of games because of their resurgent defense, led by defensive end Cameron Jordan and cornerback Marshon Lattimore. And now they have Brees at his best. His 376-yard, two-touchdown performance Sunday against a Carolina defense that was stifling the run game was arguably his best of the year -- including an 80-yard TD pass to Ted Ginn Jr. and eight passes for 131 yards to go-to receiver Michael Thomas.

Reasons to be concerned: Minnesota had the No. 1 defense in the NFL this year (No. 2 vs. the pass and No. 2 vs. the run), led by first-team All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes and first-team All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. And they’re a solid, well-rounded offense led by second-team All-Pro receiver Adam Thielen, who torched the Saints for 157 yards in Week 1. The Saints, meanwhile, were far from perfect Sunday against Carolina. They had so many breakdowns in the secondary -- letting pass-catchers like Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen break wide open -- that it felt like a repeat of that Week 1 performance at Minnesota. Their run game has grown a little stale over the past month. And their inexplicable season-long struggles on third down continued Sunday when they went 2-for-8.

What’s next: The Saints can’t afford to look past Minnesota -- but we can. If they get past the Vikings, they have a chance to host the NFC Championship Game, since the sixth-seeded Atlanta Falcons are playing at Philadelphia against an Eagles team that has been struggling in the wake of quarterback Carson Wentz’s season-ending knee injury.