Two of the NFL’s three best edge rushers this season were born 43 miles and 19 months apart in Arizona.
Everson Griffen, the 30-year-old from Avondale, has 61 career sacks for a Vikings team that drafted him in the fourth round in 2010. Cameron Jordan, the 28-year-old from Chandler, has 59½ sacks for a Saints team that took him 24th overall a year later.
This season, they tied with 13 sacks, a career high for both. Only three players in the league had more.
Among “edge rushers” on the Associated Press’ All-Pro ballot, only Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell got more votes from the panel of 50 sportswriters. He got 34, while Jordan — the son of former Vikings star tight end Steve Jordan — came in second with 25, making him the Saints’ first AP All-Pro first-team defender since Darren Sharper in 2009.
“I thought I was going to win [first team],” said Griffen, who finished third with 17 votes to make the second team. “I really thought I would. But I don’t want to talk about that.”
Griffen won’t have to talk about it. Come Sunday, he will have an opportunity to let his actions speak for his disappointment when the Vikings (13-3) play the Saints (12-5) in a NFC divisional playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Chances are one of these two edge rushers will have an impact that helps end the other team’s season. Griffen will have a significant advantage with crowd noise favoring the Vikings, but also have the disadvantage of chasing Drew Brees, whose quick release and mastery of coach Sean Payton’s system makes him the least-pressured quarterback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
There were seven quarterback hits and two sacks when these teams met in the Vikings’ 29-19 season-opening win at home. Griffen had three hits and a sack. Jordan had the only two hits and the only sack of Sam Bradford, who posted a career-high 143.0 passer rating.
The Saints aren’t the same team that lined up that afternoon. Offensively, they still valued Adrian Peterson more than Alvin Kamara, a mistake they would rectify with Peterson’s release. Defensively, coordinator Dennis Allen was working Game 1 with eight new starters on a unit that had finished 31st in scoring defense in 2016 (28.4) and last in 2015 (29.8).
When New Orleans was 0-2 with 65 points allowed, the assumption was same old Saints. But then the Saints won eight in a row while giving up only 16.4 points per game.
They finished 10th in scoring defense (20.4) as their leader, Jordan, became only the fifth Saints defender to be selected first-team All-Pro since the franchise was established in 1967.
The others were linebacker Pat Swilling (1991 and ’92), end Renaldo Turnbull (1993), tackle La’Roi Glover (2000) and Sharper.
“I didn’t play against [Jordan] the last time, but looking at him on tape, you can tell he’s a smart guy who’s been playing a long time and feeds off whatever you give him,” Vikings right tackle Rashod Hill said. “There are some similarities between him and Everson. Both of them try to jump the snap count. They got speed, power, spin moves. They’re both smart and use their hands real well.”
And neither hides his confidence. Early this season, Griffen called Lions left tackle Greg Robinson “lazy.” Sunday, Jordan mocked Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil, calling him “Speedbump McGee” after notching a sack and a key intentional grounding penalty late in the Saints’ wild-card victory. Monday, he tweaked the Panthers again by posting a photo of a bottle of “Jordan” wine next to a mailing address made out to quarterback Cam Newton.
Jordan has proven to be an effective rusher from different spots along the defensive line. And when he doesn’t get to the passer, he has a knack for getting his arms up at the right time. He had 11 pass deflections and an interception for a touchdown during the regular season.
“He’s just a heck of an athlete that can rush the passer,” said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who has one of his own that’s knocking down QBs at the same rate.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL