The NFL postseason is different from others in that so much depends on current trends. A red-hot 9-7 team can ride the wave to a Super Bowl championship. 15-1 juggernauts can show the slightest crack and become vulnerable. Recency bias can actually be an effective tool for evaluating playoff matchups.
With that in mind, and with the Saints’ 31-26 win over the Panthers yesterday, there are a few takeaways for the Division Round battle with the Vikings.
Drew Brees Still Has It
This really should not be news. Brees broke the one-year-old NFL record for completion percentage this year and did it averaging over eight yards per attempt. But the Saints status as an NFC contender has year-round been based on their running game and their newfound defense. Brees productivity has gone by the wayside.
But he is still, without much debate, the best quarterback in the NFC postseason, and he has the weapons to help him out. It showed yesterday as he threw for over 300 yards, over 11 yards per attempt and just under 70 percent completion. The only blemish was a crunch-time interception that effectively served as a short punt. And he did it against a Panther defense that, while average in the secondary, is as good as it gets in the front seven.
The Defense Has Weak Points
New Orleans’ defense is great on the edges, both on the line and in the secondary. Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore are All-Pro-caliber players. But Cam Newton exploited their safeties and linebackers all throughout the second half. Christian McCaffrey broke off a 56-yard touchdown reception that drastically swung momentum on a simple slant out of the backfield. Tight end Greg Olsen was Newton’s favorite target, finishing with eight catches for 107 yards on 12 targets.
The Vikings are big on utilizing their running backs in the passing game and Kyle Rudolph is as good a pass-catching tight end as there is in the NFC. These are areas Pat Shurmur will certainly be looking to exploit more than he did in week one. In that game, Rudolph, Jerick McKinnon and Dalvin Cook combined for just 11 targets. Newton targeted his backs and tight ends 22 times yesterday.
The Running Game Can be Contained…
Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have been the talk of the town. Their two-man running game finished fifth in the league in yards, second in yards per attempt and first in touchdowns this year. Since taking on a more featured role in week five, Kamara has never carried more than 12 times. But his efficiency (6.1 yards per carry) and effectiveness as a receiver have made him the Rookie of the Year favorite. Ingram has had a resurgent year, setting career highs in yards and touchdowns.
The offense has been built around these two. They set up play action, they open up the screen game, they have been the primary cog of the Saints’ offensive engine. But the Panthers, who as mentioned before boast an elite front, held Kamara and Ingram to 70 yards on 21 touches. The longest Saint run of the game went for seven yards.
The Vikings front seven is about on par with the Panthers. While their linebackers are not quite the run-stoppers the Panthers’ are, their defensive tackles are every bit the force in the middle. Plus, the Saints will now be without left guard Andrus Peat, who suffered a fractured fibula. They may have similar struggles running the ball in the next round.
But the Offense Does Not Need to Rely on It
That being said, the Saints still scored 31 points. They moved the ball efficiently, averaging over seven yards per play. The offensive line had a tremendous pass blocking day as Brees faced pressure on just 23 percent of dropbacks. Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. both had over 100 yards receiving. This Saints offense operated on a level far beyond what the Vikings saw in week one.
Of course, the Vikings have the surest secondary in the conference, maybe the league. They do not allow big plays like the simple post route that scored Ginn an 80-yard touchdown. But even so, it cannot be overstated how potent this Saints offense is capable of being, even when one piece of the puzzle is not fitting quite right.
Our staff will make our predictions for this game later in the week. Stay tuned.
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