BAYHAM: The Saints’ Road To Minnesota Goes Through…Minnesota

To get to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis the Saints will have to win a second round playoff game in the Twin Cities’ bigger sibling.

The Black and Gold this week travel from one end of the mighty Mississippi to the other this Sunday to face a team that they are very familiar as this will be the second time in the 2017 NFL season the Saints will face the Vikings and the fourth time the two teams will meet in the playoffs.

Most Vikings fans have not forgotten how the Saints denied their then-Brett Favre led squad from appearing in Super Bowl XLIV while Who Dats with longer memories will recall that it was the Purple People Eaters who demolished the Saints in their first playoff appearance in the 1987 season and later eliminated New Orleans a week after the Saints won their first ever playoff game in 2000.

The Vikings go into the game with the best defense in the NFL, equally stingy against the pass and the ground game.  The defense also surrendered the least amount of points in the league, with 252.  And the game will be played in the ship-shaped US Bank Stadium, a shiny new edifice designed to put visiting teams at a major disadvantage via acoustics.

Can the Saints beat the Vikings on Sunday?

Probably not.

Keyword, probably.

You have to favor a dominant defense playing at home against a team that struggled to put away the Carolina Panthers in the Superdome.

While the Monday Night Football opener was disappointing and led many Saints not so faithful to proclaim the season lost, cries to trade away quarterback Drew Brees, and an urgency to fire head coach Sean Payton.  The two teams that met up back then are different than the ones that will face off on Sunday afternoon.

There will be no force-feeding of future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson into an unmovable wall of purple.

And someone far more formidable will be guarding Minnesota’s wide receivers than cut cornerback Davonte Harris.

Running back Alvin Kamara, the most dynamic offensive player in the NFL, will test the Vikings “D” while cornerback Marshon Lattimore will be challenging the Minnesota receiving corps.

And unlike the leadoff game, Sam Bradford won’t be taking snaps but journeyman backup quarterback Case Keenum.  Granted Keenum has won a lot of games for the Vikings as a sub.  But unlike Brees, Keenum hasn’t played in the big time.  And as we saw last week in the Rams-Falcons game, experience shouldn’t be underestimated.

The game will come down to three things: Brees’s arm, Will Lutz’s foot, and the Black and Gold defense’s hands.

Like the Carolina Wild Card Game, Brees will be stymied in his first few sets and he is going to have to figure out a way to move the ball around the league’s toughest defense.  I don’t expect the Saints to have any more luck on the ground than last week.

The Saints’ kicker has been a mercifully stable aspect of the team.  Lutz is going to have to be money against Minnesota just as Garrett Hartley was against the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl. Hartley’s record setting performance in Super Bowl XLIV is what set the team up to win in the second half.  Lutz might not pull off the “walk off” winning field goal like Hartley did against Minnesota in the NFC Championship but he might lay down the foundation for the game-deciding touchdown.

Lattimore, the consensus defensive rookie of the year, isn’t likely to see a lot of footballs go his way.  The first round draft pick’s reputation precedes him.  It’s going to be on the other defensive players to create turnovers. A Cam Jordan tipped pass taken to the house by the Pro Bowl defensive end or caught by one of his teammates would be huge.

One last factor: running back Kamara playing in a different role.  I don’t expect Kamara to gain many yards running the ball but to make an impact as a receiver and as a kick returner.

This divisional playoff game will be the toughest contest in the Payton-Brees era.  The noise will be deafening. The Vikings defense relentless.

But as Bobby Hebert likes to say, so long as Brees is in the huddle anything is possible.

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