A rejuvenated Saints team will come marching into U.S. Bank Stadium for the NFC divisional playoffs on Sunday, when the Vikings can take revenge on behalf of one of Minnesota’s more recent playoff heartbreaks.
Only five players remain from the 2009 NFC Championship Game. Vikings defensive end Brian Robison and Saints tackle Zach Strief, punter Thomas Morstead and quarterbacks Drew Brees and Chase Daniel were there for Minnesota’s 31-28 overtime loss. The game was later pinpointed by the original whistleblower of the Saints’ bounty scandal, in which bonuses allegedly were paid for injuring opponents such as Vikings quarterback Brett Favre.
“I’m not worried about that,” Robison said. “This is 2017. That was a long time ago.”
Revenge would still certainly be sweet Sunday afternoon when the Vikings and Saints play for a spot in the 2017 NFC Championship Game. A year hasn’t felt as magical for Minnesota since 2009, and these Saints still aren’t an easy draw eight years later. The Saints offense and defense have matured throughout the season since the 29-19 loss to the Vikings in the Sept. 11 regular-season opener.
New Orleans displayed its growth in Sunday’s 31-26 wild-card victory over the Panthers.
Brees, who threw for 376 yards against Carolina, is now leading a primarily spread attack with four receivers — Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr., Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman — heavily involved. It’s changed the look of their running game, which is now dominating with a two-headed backfield of Mark Ingram, fifth in the NFL with 1,124 rushing yards, and rookie sensation Alvin Kamara.
Kamara has been a game changer for the Saints. The third-round pick is already one of the NFL’s best receiving backs, and has put himself in the Rookie of the Year conversation by averaging 101 yards from scrimmage per game since the Week 1 loss four months ago. The 5-10 bolt of lightning is one of the league’s most elusive backs, forcing 57 missed tackles on the season, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Vikings held the Ingram-Kamara duo to a combined 109 yards back in September, while Adrian Peterson was crowbarred into the Saints’ equation. Since Peterson’s midseason trade to Arizona, Ingram and Kamara have made for Brees’ best backfield tandem in the quarterback’s 17th NFL season.
They’ve eased the playmaking pressure on Brees, who just recaptured the NFL’s completion percentage record (72 percent) from Sam Bradford and leads an offense second in touchdowns per drive, according to Football Outsiders. Some grown rookies have helped Brees, an accuracy artist who turns 39 next week, make a late push for a second Super Bowl ring after three consecutive 7-9 seasons with longtime coach Sean Payton.
New Orleans’ second first-round pick last spring, tackle Ryan Ramczyk out of Wisconsin, has played every snap for the Saints this season. The top pick, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, has grabbed five interceptions and helped stabilize a defense that gave up 470 yards to the Vikings in Week 1.
The Saints defense isn’t getting pushed around as much anymore. Only four of New Orleans’ final 14 opponents were able to top 21 points. They’re led by veteran end Cameron Jordan, who was the only Saints defender to register a hit on Bradford. He’s put together perhaps his best season.
Jordan’s career-high 13 sacks tie him for fifth in the NFL with Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen.
Vikings quarterback Case Keenum will need to be mindful of where Jordan lines up, given Keenum was one of the most pressured passers this season. The Vikings’ own standout rookie, center Pat Elflein, is expected to return from a shoulder injury, which should help stabilize their protection and could open other possibilities after Mike Remmers played fairly well at right guard in the season finale against the Bears.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph was candid about needing the bye week to nurse his injured ankle. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was held out of practice last week because of an undisclosed injury. But the Vikings, led by the NFL’s No. 1 defense, are expected to be mostly healthy while chasing the franchise’s first playoff victory since 2009.
What more appropriate way than with this rematch?