EAGAN, Minn. -- Stefon Diggs' walk-off touchdown tells only one side of the Minnesota Vikings' second-half performance in the NFC divisional playoffs. If it wasn’t for several short fields, two of which were created by an interception and a long-snapper going the wrong way, leading to a Vikings punt being blocked, the New Orleans Saints would have had to dig deeper to come back from a scoreless first half.
Fortunately for New Orleans, with Drew Brees leading the charge, it would take a miracle for the Saints to be counted out down the stretch.
Coming out of halftime, the Vikings allowed 14 unanswered points before trading blows back and forth in the last 15 minutes of the game.
The Saints scored 24 points in the final two quarters prior the Minneapolis Miracle, instantly wiping away everything that went wrong for the Vikings in the second half. Looking back, it’s easy to point to a handful of gaffes in coverage (i.e. Mackensie Alexander allowing a late completion on fourth-and-10 to set up the Saints' go-ahead field goal) as the catalyst for why the defense sputtered. Considering the quarterback who orchestrated the attack, some players don’t view it through that lens.
“Honestly, I don’t even think it’s a letdown,” safety Harrison Smith said. “It’s Drew Brees. He’s a good player -- one of the greatest. He made some incredible throws. It is what it is.”
Mike Zimmer echoed the same tune, saying it’s not unusual for Brees to fire back after struggling in the first half, relying on his innate ability to figure out what the defense is doing and counteracting that scheme as the game wears on.
“A guy like him who has seen everything, he sees everything anyway, but he’s seen so many different looks that he can kind of decipher things quickly on the move,” Zimmer said.
One word sums up how Zimmer views a Sean Payton offense led by Brees: indiscriminate.
“Call anything at any time,” Zimmer said. “Call anything. Second-and-one, he might be in no backs. Play-action shots on first-and-possession, it doesn’t matter. Formations, movements, personnel groupings, he doesn’t care. I don’t think he cares about down and distance.”
That same word can be used to describe how Brees picked apart the Vikings' defense in the second half of the divisional game. The Saints quarterback went after defensive backs of all pedigrees, keying in on younger corners such as Alexander and Trae Waynes just as much as he did veterans in Terence Newman and Xavier Rhodes.
Injuries have hit the Vikings' defense hard the past two weeks and could leave Minnesota without one of its best defenders against the league’s highest-scoring offense. If Rhodes remains sidelined with the ankle injury he sustained in the Jets game, Holton Hill is expected to fill the void. Starting a rookie corner against a future Hall of Fame quarterback is no ideal matchup, but given the rash of injuries to the Vikings’ secondary, from Mike Hughes’ season-ending ACL tear to Rhodes’ apparent ankle sprain, Minnesota may have no other choice.
“Corners always get hurt it seems like,” Zimmer said. “You don’t go through the season with the same two corners every single ball game, typically, and so that’s why everybody laughs at me ‘we need one more corner,’ but it’s kind of proving out now.”
On his first defensive snap against the Jets, which came after Rhodes went down in the fourth quarter, Hill notched his first NFL interception. But going against Brees is just a little different than Sam Darnold.
Hill said he has spent extra time this week working with Newman, now the Vikings’ assistant DBs coach, who faced Brees countless times over his career.
“He (Newman) basically told me I’m going to have to be on my ‘A’ game,” Hill said. “Drew Brees is going to know our defense. So I’m going to have to know it as good as Drew Brees (does). I’m taking that and going in every day, just watching extra film and meeting up with Terence so I can have everything on my toes."
The only similarity between Darnold and Brees is the amount of times both quarterbacks look to target rookie defensive backs. If Hill indeed starts over Rhodes, the former UDFA expects Brees will throw in his direction often, an undertaking he isn’t shying away from.
“That’s what I kind of want,” Hill said. “I kind of want that challenge for them to throw the ball at me. I’m a competitor. I always have been, always will be. I would like to accept that challenge if he decided to throw the ball at me.”