The No. 2 seed in the AFC will play Sunday against a Jacksonville team that managed 87 passing yards in an unwatchable victory over Buffalo, the worst team in the NFL playoffs.
The No. 2 seed in the NFC will play Sunday against one of history’s greatest quarterbacks, who will lead the league’s second-ranked and most balanced offense into U.S. Bank Stadium.
There will be many angles to explore this week in terms of possible revenge, a fascinating rematch and a clash of styles as the Vikings prepare to play the New Orleans Saints.
The most pertinent, for the moment, is that the Vikings’ 13-victory season earned them the toughest possible matchup. The other three teams that received a playoff bye will face Jacksonville, Tennessee and a Falcons team that the Vikings beat in Atlanta a month ago.
In New Orleans, the Vikings drew the short daiquiri straw. If the Vikings become the first NFL team ever to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium, their path will have required machetes and steel-toe boots.
Offensively, the Saints possess everything the Vikings don’t — a quarterback with a long-term pedigree and postseason success, pure speed receivers and two backs who surpassed 1,500 yards from scrimmage (the Vikings didn’t have one reach 1,000).
That surplus of dynamic offensive talent will face a defense that is healthy and has allowed more than 10 points just once in the past five games.
The Vikings and Saints have this in common: Both improved offensively after ditching Adrian Peterson. The Vikings did so in the offseason; the Saints did so after four games this season, including a season-opening loss at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The rematch will not resemble the opener. Peterson is no longer an angry gremlin on Saints coach Sean Payton’s shoulder. Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford, who was close to perfect in that game, did not finish another start and just returned to practice.
Both teams made it this far because of coaching and personnel-department intelligence. The Saints diversified their offense, relying less on Brees than ever before, and fixed a leaky defense that was exposed by Bradford in Week 1. The Vikings remade their offensive line and watched coach and defensive guru Mike Zimmer give the Vikings their first top-ranked defense since 1970.
The Saints’ 31-26 victory over Carolina on Sunday sets up a delicious revenge buffet for the Vikings.
They could win their first Super Bowl by beating the Saints (who upset them in the 2009 NFC title game), the Falcons (who upset them in the 1998 NFC title game) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (who defeated them in Super Bowl IX).
Their first step will come against the team that upset them in the Superdome in January 2010 while allegedly targeting Brett Favre with a bounty, and verifiably targeted him with vicious hits.
Vikings vs. Saints will provide the marquee matchup of the weekend, and the winner likely will be favored to play in the Super Bowl, perhaps against a Patriots team whose key figures may be preparing for curtain calls.
According to reports by ESPN and the Boston Globe, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have been playing office politics with the most dominant NFL franchise of the past two decades, leading to a head-scratching trade of talented backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers during the season.
Against the Saints, as Vikings fans know, anything from a 12th man to a missed field goal could decide the game. The most entertaining aspect of this matchup will be Brees trying to dissect the Vikings defense, which hasn’t allowed a 200-yard passer since Nov. 23 or a 300-yard passer since Nov. 12. Sunday, Brees threw for 300 yards in a playoff game for the seventh time.
They say to be the best you have to beat the best, but it is the Vikings’ misfortune that they have to face the best possible opponent so early in what they hope will be a vengeful postseason.