With a 24-10 win over the Chicago Bears last Sunday, the Vikings finished the regular season 13-3 and secured a first round bye in the playoffs. Going 13-3 got the Vikings the second seed, with the Philadelphia Eagles nabbing the number one need in the NFC. As we turn our attention to wild card weekend, let’s take a look at the most favorable and the least favorable NFC playoff matches for the Vikings.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Normally it would be strange for the top seed in the conference to be the most favorable matchup. But due to the Carson Wentz injury, the playoff picture in the NFC has dramatically changed. The Eagles ended the regular season with a 6-0 loss to the Cowboys in a game where their offense did absolutely nothing. Nick Foles really struggled to get the offense moving, and that has to be worrisome to Eagles fans.
While Philadelphia still has one of the best defenses in the NFL, their playoff push all comes down to how well Foles plays. If this Eagles-Vikings matchup does take place, it would have to be in the NFC Championship game and it would be played in Philadelphia. While that would make it a tougher task for the Vikings, Mike Zimmer will have a ton of exotic blitzes to throw at Foles to make him uncomfortable in the pocket.
2. Atlanta Falcons
The Vikings and Falcons squared off in Week 13, with the Vikings winning a close game in Atlanta by a score of 14-9. The Falcons all season have been one of the tougher teams to understand. When their offense is clicking, it is undoubtedly one of the hardest in the entire league to stop. Julio Jones is one of the best wide receivers in football and they have two great running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman that keep a defense on their toes.
In this first matchup, Xavier Rhodes was able to shadow Jones and really take him out of the game. Without Jones heavily involved, Matt Ryan looked for Mohamed Sanu but that did not yield much, either. A potential rematch of this game could not happen again until the NFC Championship game in Minnesota, but the Falcons high powered offense could help them make a playoff run. Out of all the teams in the NFC playoffs, the Falcons are the real “wild card” of the group. When they play to their potential, you understand why they were so close to winning the Super Bowl last season. But can you trust the Falcons to be consistent when they have not been all season?
3. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have been one of the feel good stories of the season. After a 4-12 season last year, rookie head coach Sean McVay set the NFL world on fire and brought a high scoring offense to Los Angeles, led by Jared Goff and Todd Gurley. This matchup took place during Week 11 of the regular season in Minnesota, with the Vikings winning 24-7. All week going into this game, the Vikings heard about how good this Rams offense was. Yet when push came to shove, Minnesota completely shut them down after getting gashed on their opening drive.
What makes the Rams a difficult out in the playoffs is that they play both sides of the ball well. On offense, they are led by the resurgence of Goff and an MVP candidate in Gurley. If you focus too much on Gurley, Goff has shown the ability to beat opponents down the field. However, to beat the Rams, Minnesota must limit Gurley. In the first matchup, the Vikings were able to shut Gurley down and put the onus on Goff. The way to beat Goff and the Rams is to throw a ton of blitzes at him. When watching some of Goff’s film, his footwork starts to get a little out of wack when pressure is sent his way. When the pressure is coming right at him, he has been susceptible to some misfires on passes he would normally complete.
On the defensive side, the Rams have a dominant front four lead by Aaron Donald, one of the best defensive players in the NFL. His constant pressure makes it hard for running backs to get anything going, and is often in the face of opposing quarterbacks. Perhaps the biggest weakness for the Rams is the lack of experience. With this being the first playoff chance for McVay and Goff, will they be up for the challenge or crumble when opposing teams coordinators send exotic new looks their way?
4. Carolina Panthers
The Vikings went 3-1 in the regular season against the NFC playoff field, with the only loss coming to the Panthers in Week 14. In that game, the Vikings turned the ball over three times and still found themselves with a chance to tie the game on their final possession. What makes the Panthers a difficult out is their defense and recent playoff success. The Panthers feature one of the most dominant front sevens in the league. During the first matchup of these teams, the Panthers were sending run blitzes at will at the Vikings on first down. These run blitzes constantly had the Vikings looking at second and longs, which made converting a first down on the road that much more difficult.
On the offensive side of the ball, the well-known secret to beat Cam Newton is to constantly blitz and send pressure at him. The problem there though is the Panthers, outside of Matt Kalil, have one of the best offensive lines in football and getting to Newton can be hard. However, in the games that the Panthers lost, teams were able to send pressure at Newton and make him throw the ball off balance and from difficult angles. Getting pressure to Newton is important because when Newton is on, his confidence level goes through the roof, making the offense that much harder to stop.
The 31-24 score from the regular season matchup seems like a bit of an outlier. With two of the best defenses in the NFL, a lower scoring game in Minnesota would seem like the more reasonable playoff option if these teams were to face off again.
5. New Orleans Saints
The Vikings and Saints squared off in week one of 2017, with the Vikings winning by a score of 29-19. In this game, Sam Bradford started at quarterback for the Vikings and had the best game of his career, going 27-32 for 346 yards and three touchdowns. Bradford and the Vikings offense were able to do anything they wanted against the Saints defense.
However, that was week one and both of these teams look completely different. In fact, you can almost throw that game out completely. After the Saints started the season with two straight losses, something changed. New Orleans always had an explosive offense but never a high flying defense that could take the ball away at will. During the Saints eight-game winning streak, the defense, led by star rookie, Marshon Lattimore, started to emerge. The Saints found themselves taking the ball away from opponents three times a game and it brought a swagger to their defense. No longer were they the liability where the offense would always have to score 30 points to keep them in the game.
Still, the Saints offense has been dynamic and it is partially led by a new face. During week one, Adrian Peterson was still a member of the Saints and they did not heavily feature rookie Alvin Kamara. Kamara, as most are aware now, has been an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses in the subsequent weeks. The ability to run the football inside and out, along with his dynamic catching ability, has made him more of the most difficult matchups in football. Alongside Kamara, Mark Ingram also had a ridiculously good season, himself running and catching the ball. These two make up the best one-two punch in the NFL.
It does not stop with the running game though. Drew Brees has his number one wide receiver in Michael Thomas, who catches everything thrown his way. He is as dependable as they come, and Rhodes would surely be shadowing Thomas in this matchup. Rhodes kept him in check during the regular season, but with defenses having to load up on the rushing attack, covering Thomas one-on-one will not be easy. This has the making of the toughest NFC playoff possibility for the Vikings because this is not a game they will win 10-7. The Vikings will need to put up points in this matchup because the Saints offense is a threat to score on every possession, regardless of opponent.
The key to beating the Saints is keep their offense off the field. The defense for the Saints is very strong, but they have been living off forcing turnovers. The Vikings do not turn the ball over much and run an efficient offense, which seems to be the kryptonite for the Saints defense. Can they survive in the playoffs if they do not get the turnovers at their usual rate?
These are all very good playoff teams and a lot of it will come down to matchups for the Vikings. Being able to play their first game at home is huge for the Vikings, and if the Eagles lose, the NFC playoffs will run through Minnesota. What makes this NFC playoff picture so fascinating is that you have three quarterbacks with tons of playoff experience in Brees, Ryan and Newton. And then there are three quarterbacks relatively new to the postseason in Keenum, Foles and Goff (Foles has one playoff start, but that was four years ago). Each team in the playoffs has a compelling case to make some noise and reach the Super Bowl.
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– Anthony Talanca writes for Full Press Coverage and covers the Vikings. Follow him @atalanca.