The second-seeded Vikings (13-3) will host the fourth-seeded Saints (12-5) on Sunday in the NFC’s divisional round. The Vikings hosted and beat the Saints 29-19 in Week 1, but much has changed since then. Here are five things to know about the Vikings’ pivotal rematch with New Orleans:
1. New Orleans has the NFL’s most explosive offense.
Whatever quarterback Drew Brees has lost by being 38 years old, you couldn’t see it on his 80-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. during Sunday’s 31-26 wild-card victory over the Carolina Panthers. Brees uncorked a deep ball over Carolina’s two-deep safety defense, perfectly placed to Ginn Jr. in stride to break open their win. New Orleans led the NFL with 99 plays of 20-plus yards during the regular season. Meanwhile, the Vikings defense allowed the second-fewest such plays (41).
2. A Saints youth movement is making an impact.
Brees is surrounded by a handful of young Saints contributors lifting their turnaround. Rookies Alvin Kamara, Ryan Ramczyk, Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams have improved the offense and defense. All while second-year receiver Michael Thomas has grown into a bona fide No. 1 threat. Thomas finished third in the league with 104 receptions and sixth with 1,245 yards. In Week 1, Thomas had five catches on eight targets for 45 yards against the Vikings.
3. This is a tough test for the Vikings pass rush.
Offenses respect the Vikings pass rush. It dictates game plans before the opening kickoff, so much so it’s impacted their numbers. The Vikings defense has recorded only one sack or fewer in three of the past five games. The challenge will be in simply pressuring Brees, who is the league’s least-pressured quarterback (22.6 percent), according to Pro Football Focus, while being the fourth quickest to throw (2.51 seconds on average).
4. The Saints defense gets its hands up.
New Orleans’ 20 interceptions were the third most during the regular season. Those interceptions are spread between nine defenders. Out of the Saints’ 99 pass deflections, 11 came from veteran defensive end Cameron Jordan, who is enjoying perhaps his best season. He’s one of three Saints with more than 10 deflections behind cornerbacks Lattimore (18) and Ken Crawley (17).
5. Drew Brees is still among the game’s best.
Quarterbacks are thriving late into their careers, with Brees a prime example. Brees, 38, extended his NFL record with a 12th season of 4,000 or more passing yards, finishing with 4,334 yards on an NFL-record completion rate of 72 percent. Perhaps the best number for Brees is eight — his fewest interceptions in a season since 2004 when he was with the Chargers.