The last time the Minnesota Vikings faced the New Orleans Saints, the narrative featured the return of Adrian Peterson in an enemy jersey and the debut of Vikings rookie and Peterson-heir apparent Dalvin Cook.
But neither of those players will be on the U.S. Bank Stadium field on Sunday for the divisional-round matchup, as storylines have changed from that Week 1 Monday night, when Cook led the Vikings to a 29-19 victory.
ESPN Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin and Saints reporter Mike Triplett discuss how the teams have changed and what to expect on Sunday.
What has been the biggest change for each team since Week 1?
Where do I begin? Obviously, the Saints don’t have Peterson anymore, as he was dealt to the Arizona Cardinals; but more importantly, they have a much more potent run game than the one that gained just 60 yards on 21 carries in that game in September. Despite that dud, the Saints still wound up leading the NFL with 4.7 yards per carry and 23 rushing touchdowns, thanks to rookie star Alvin Kamara and veteran Mark Ingram; they became the first running back duo in NFL history to gain more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage, while combining for 26 TDs.
Just as importantly, the Saints’ young defense went from a Week 1 disaster to a strength -- led by first-team All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan and breakout rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The secondary was a mess in the first game, with Sam Bradford throwing for 346 yards and three touchdowns. But since then, Lattimore, rookie free safety Marcus Williams and second-year cornerback Ken Crawley (who was a healthy inactive in Week 1) have developed into standout starters. From Weeks 3 to 16, the Saints had the No. 3-ranked pass defense in the NFL (190.4 yards per game), though they’ve had a few hiccups over the past two weeks.
And with that rise of the run game and defense, the Saints are no longer the pass-first team we’ve been so used to seeing in the past decade. Drew Brees had his fewest attempts, yards, TD passes and interceptions per game in 12 years with the Saints, while breaking Bradford’s NFL record for highest completion percentage in a single season (72.0). -- Triplett
The Vikings didn't only lose Bradford, whose knee injury put him in injured reserve for most of the season. Minnesota also has been without Cook since he tore his ACL in Week 4. Fortunately for the Vikings, the run game has found different ways to be as effective as it was when Cook rushed for 127 yards in his rookie debut against the Saints. The difference is a workload that capitalizes on defined roles for Latavius Murray (powerful, downhill rusher) and Jerick McKinnon (a threat in the passing game). Minnesota also does not have the same starting offensive line as it did Week 1, as Nick Easton fractured his ankle in Green Bay in Week 16. The Vikings will be looking at their eighth different combination of starting linemen when rookie center Pat Elflein returns on Sunday. Most notably, in the time that has passed since these two teams last met, Case Keenum emerged as a league MVP candidate. He has killed defenses with his mobility, has made big throws from the pocket and has gotten the most out of his playmakers, who have helped Keenum achieve an 11-3 record as a starter, all while throwing 21 touchdowns to seven interceptions. -- Cronin
What’s the biggest reason the team you cover should be optimistic about Sunday?
For all the reasons I listed above, the Saints are as well-rounded as they have been in the Brees-Sean Payton era. Because of that standout run game, a stacked offensive line and that rising young defense, they don’t need to just rely on Brees’ arm. However, as we learned last week, Brees will still make you pay big time if you decide to sell out to stop the run.
Brees had his best full-game performance of the season with 376 yards and two touchdowns (including an 80-yarder to Ted Ginn Jr.) in Sunday’s 31-26 wild-card win over the Carolina Panthers. He completed eight passes for 131 yards to the Saints’ big, physical, go-to receiver Michael Thomas, who set a franchise record with 104 catches this year for 1,245 yards and five TDs. The matchup between Thomas and Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes this week should be must-see viewing. -- Triplett
While the Saints led the league with 126 explosive plays in the regular season (rushes of 10-plus yards or receptions of 20-plus yards), the Vikings defense allowed just 55 such plays, the fewest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Rhodes kicked off his "Rhodes Closed" campaign in 2017 by limiting Thomas to 45 yards on five catches and no touchdowns. There’s little doubt that Rhodes will be matched up with Thomas again on Sunday, but this time, the Saints receiver will face the Vikings cornerback at his peak. Teams have thrown into Rhodes’ coverage just 84 times for an average of 6.4 yards per attempt. You know that adage that defense wins championships? That’s not just some cliché for this Vikings defense, which finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in yards and scoring. On top of that, Minnesota has been lights-out defensively at home, limiting opponents to five touchdowns at U.S. Bank Stadium, while holding quarterbacks to a 73.2 passer rating and going 7-1. -- Cronin
What’s the biggest concern for the team you cover heading into the weekend?
The obvious ones are the Vikings’ home-field advantage and their dominant defense -- No. 1 in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed, No. 2 against both the run and the pass. Rhodes will almost certainly shadow Thomas, and if the cornerback is as effective as he was against Julio Jones and others this year, he could nullify one of the Saints’ biggest threats. And that leaves another first-team All-Pro, safety Harrison Smith, to help against the run game, while second-team All-Pro pass-rusher Everson Griffen helps to disrupt Brees.
Injuries also have thinned out the Saints a bit down the stretch. Their defense has lost starting linebacker A.J. Klein, starting safety Kenny Vaccaro and starting defensive end Alex Okafor. Meanwhile, the offense will have to get by without starting left guard Andrus Peat (though veteran backup Senio Kelemete is a very experienced replacement option).
For the Saints to win this game, it might have to be a signature win for Payton as one of the best game planners in the business -- much like last week’s win was a testament to Brees’ greatness. -- Triplett
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer hopes his offense can be a little bit more explosive, after it struggled to generate big plays in the final three games of the regular season. The Saints' new-look pass defense likely won’t allow Keenum to do what Bradford did in Week 1, when he went 8-of-9 for 219 yards and a touchdown on throws 15 yards or more downfield. But that might not even come into play, because Keenum hasn’t been taking some of those deeper shots that he did at points this season. The Saints sacked Cam Newton four times in the wild-card game, and that pass rush could be a problem as Minnesota shuffles again on the offensive line, particularly given Cam Jordan’s incredibly versatile skill set and New Orleans’ ability to line up him in multiple spots. With this defense at its disposal, Minnesota’s offense doesn’t necessarily need to score big to get a win and advance to the NFC Championship Game -- but it does need to score early, so as to not let Brees feel comfortable with a lead. -- Cronin