The NFL playoffs are underway. During Wild Card weekend, the New Orleans Saints hosted the Minnesota Vikings in this NFC playoff match. Below is the full Wild Card Recap – Vikings @ Saints.
The game began well enough for Minnesota with a 9-yard run by Dalvin Cook. Entering the contest, the Vikings’ run game was expected to be a key element. Instead of pounding the rock on 2nd-and-1, Kevin Stefanski called a pass play. It worked as Adam Thielen caught the football for a 1st down. However, he fumbled after Janoris Jenkins led with his helmet and made contact with the football. Thielen lost control and Vonn Bell recovered the fumble.
The Saints could not take advantage of the great field position and had to settle for only 3 points. Credit goes to Minnesota’s defense as Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter combined for a 3rd-down sack. Wil Lutz came out and New Orleans took a 3-0 lead.
The Vikings offense responded to the fumble by establishing their running backs in the game plan. Cook got the initial 1st-down on the ground followed by an Alexander Mattison catch that moved the chains. This got Minnesota into field goal range but the Saints defense would not let them get any further. Dan Bailey made the 43-yard field goal attempt to tie the game at 3-3.
Old Orleans Offense
The New Orleans offense was not operating at its optimal level. The new NFL is all about inflated offensive totals. The Saints stat line for much of the game read like an old-school NFL box score. During New Orleans’ first 3 possessions, the team gained a grand total of 48 yards.
On consecutive drives, Everson Griffen made key defensive plays on 3rd-down. This time, he provided pressure which forced Drew Brees to rush his throw which fell incomplete. Throughout this game, Griffin often operated as a defensive tackle. This allowed him to align across from Andrus Peat, who was returning from injury. The Vikings tested Peat early and he did not pass.
Getting Over the Hill
Finally, the Saints found a spark in the form of Taysom Hill. He came in for Drew Brees at quarterback and immediately ran for a 1st-down. Hill remained behind center for the next play which began looking like an end-around to Alvin Kamara. They drew the Vikings defense close to the line of scrimmage. Hill kept the football and found Deonte Harris who hauled in the 50-yard reception. Harris faked a corner route and turned inside. Xavier Rhodes bit on the fake which left Harris open over the middle. While Harris did not find the end zone on the play, Alvin Kamara ran in a touchdown on the next play. This gave New Orleans their first lead of the game as the score became 10-3.
The Vikings would eventually get into scoring range on their next drive. Alexander Mattison came ever so close from scoring, moving the football to the 1-yard line. For the 2nd time on 2nd-and-1, Minnesota chose to throw the football. The fade pass to Tyler Conklin fell incomplete. Dalvin Cook did get the ball on 3rd down, but lost yards and Dan Baily came out to kick a field goal. The score now became 10-6 Saints.
The momentum continued in Minnesota’s direction. Coming off of the Vikings scoring drive, the Saints regained possession just before the 2-minute warning. However, Drew Brees threw an interception. He was looking for Ted Ginn deep and Anthony Harris came up with the pick.
Off of that turnover, the Vikings finally found the end zone. Adam Thielen found redemption in the form of a 19-yard reception that put his team in field goal range. But Minnesota was hungry for more than 3 points. Thielen kept the drive alive with a 13-yard reception on 3rd down that set up the Vikings on the 5-yard line.
On 1st-and-goal, Minnesota chose to go through the air. Kyle Rudolph ran a crossing route along the back of the end zone but it was well defended. The Vikings finally went with the run in a key short-yardage situation and it paid off. Instead of targeting Rudolph, he was used the seal the edge of the line and block for Dalvin Cook. The running back quickly burst through the hole on the cutback and scored a touchdown, giving the Vikings a 13-10 lead.
However, time still remained on the clock in the 2nd quarter. 23 seconds to be exact. After getting the Saints in scoring position earlier in the contest, Deonte Harris made another impact play. He returned the kickoff 54 yards and the Saints were able to operate in Vikings territory. New Orleans had enough time to run one play. Who else would Drew Brees look toward except Michael Thomas? The star receiver was open in the Vikings zone defense. But Brees underthrew the pass. Thomas still came up with the 20-yard reception, but he could not gain any yards after the catch. Had Brees made a better pass attempt, Thomas could have gained additional yards.
Either way, Wil Lutz came out to attempt a 43-yard field goal attempt. As time expired on the first half, Lutz’ kick sailed wide of the uprights and Minnesota maintained a 13-10 lead.
Plenty of Punts
To begin the second half, 4 of the first 6 possession were 3-and-outs. The opening drive of the half was not a 3-and-out as Latavius Murray took a dump-off pass and gained a 1st-down. However, the Saints were unable to move the chains any further and were forced to punt.
On their initial drive of the 2nd half, the Vikings faired no better. Once again the decision to pass the football in a short-yardage situation proved unsuccessful. This, even after Dalvin Cook took a screen pass 11 yards and set up and 3rd-and-2. Instead of handing it off to the star running back, Kirk Cousins dropped back and tried to fit in a pass in tight coverage to Olabisi Johnson.
The next two New Orleans possessions gained a combined total of 1 yard. The Saints were forced to punt on each of the first three drives of the 3rd quarter. Sandwiched in between the last two was a Vikings score. That was set up by another Adam Thielen catch on 3rd-down. Thielen got separation on Marshon Lattimore and hauled in a 34-yard pass from Cousins. Kudos goes to the quarterback who was hit when he threw, but still managed to put the proper velocity to get the ball over Latimore. Stefon Diggs, who was held without a catch in the first half, contributed by catching a 3rd down pass to set up a 1st-and-goal situation. On the very next play, Cook followed the lead block of fullback C.J. Ham into the end zone for the score. This gave Minnesota a 20-10 lead.
The Saints entered the 4th quarter down by 2 possessions. Not wanting to get embarrassed at home, Sean Payton‘s team was not going down without a fight. They methodically drove down the field on a drive that started at their own 15-yard line.
Just as Adam Thielen provided for the Vikings, the Saints needed someone to step up to move the chains. On this possession is was Jared Cook. He kicked things off with a 14-yard reception to open the drive. After Alvin Kamara gained 7 yards on two plays, Cook came down with an impressive one-handed grab on 3rd-and-3. These chain moving receptions were incredibly important to the Saints. As was a big 18-yard reception by Ted Ginn. The receiver offered up his own form of redemption after he was the target on Drew Brees’ interception.
While he only ran the ball 5 times in this contest, the timing of these plays made by Latavius Murray was key. He gained a 1st-down on the ground thanks to some key blocks by Ryan Ramczyk and Larry Warford. On the very next play, Brees found Taysom Hill in the end zone. The versatile Hill was doing it all for New Orleans. He not only led the team in rushing yards, but he beat Harrison Smith off of the line of scrimmage and caught Brees’ end zone pass to pull the Saints within 3 points.
4th Not Final
Now up only 20-17, Minnesota needed to stop their opponent’s momentum. While they only gained one 1st-down on the ensuing drive, they did manage to kill 3-and-a-half minutes of game clock. They also finally decided to run on 3rd-and-short, giving the ball to C.J. Ham for a 1st-down.
The Saints also experienced a 3rd-and-1 on the next drive. Taysom Hill came in at quarterback for this play. He took the ball, got the 1st-down, and then some. Two plays, later, Hill ran on an outside zone play and gained 28 yards on the ground. There was a key block by Andrus Peat who was struggling in pass-protection but managed to have a good game in run blocking.
Actually that last statement can really apply to the entire Saints offensive line. On the very next play, Larry Warford was beaten by Dannielle Hunter. The pressure he provided on Brees was enough to make the quarterback fumble. Jalyn Holmes came up with the fumble recovery as the Vikings regained the football with just over 4 minutes left in the ball game.
Adam Thielen one again was the chain mover with a 3rd-down catch. Minnesota could not gain an additional 1st-down and was forced to punt the football.
The Saints were now in a situation where a 2-minute drive could win them the game. Brees efficiently moved the football downfield with 1st-down receptions by Jared Cook and Michael Thomas. One final Cook catch set up New Orleans in field goal range. After missing the kick at the end of the first half, Wil Lutz was looking for his own form of redemption. Staring at a 49-yard attempt, Lutz drained it tying the score at 20-20 and sending the game in overtime.
The Vikings won the toss and began with the football. While it was only his 2nd catch of the game, Stefon Diggs came up with a key grab on 3rd-and-1. He ran a slant route against Janoris Jenkins and was able to move the chains for Minnesota.
This game was all about Adam Thielen’s return to prominence. Because of injuries this season, Thielen only had one 100-yard game in 2019. Well, he picked a great time have another. Thielen ended up 1-on-1 against Patrick Robinson on a deep post route. Kirk Cousins noticed this and threw up the pass of his life. Thielen came down with the 43-yard reception and set up the Vikings with a 1st-and-goal. Thielen finished the game with 129 yards on 7 receptions, accounting for more than half of Cousins’s 242 passing yards.
Perhaps my earlier opinion that Minnesota was not running the football enough was faulty. On 1st-and-goal from the 2, Dalvin Cook received the football. He tried to make it into the endzone, but Marcus Williams came up with a key tackle to prevent the score. They ran it with Cook once again and this time the Saints produced a tackle for loss courtesy of Shy Tuttle.
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Suddenly, the Vikings were facing a 3rd-and-goal from 4 yards out. Everything now rested on Cousins’s shoulders. He threw up a pass to Kyle Rudolph on his corner fade route. P.J. Williams was in coverage on the play, and did his best to be in position. However, Rudolph used his tall frame to pluck the ball out of the air with both feet in the end zone. Rudolph came down with the game-winning catch. There was some controversy, on the play, because at one point it appeared as though Rudolph pushed off of Williams’ shoulder in order to get separation. A quick review was done, but the league found not enough evidence of an infraction and the call stood.
Cousins delivered the game-winning score. In fact, it was his only touchdown pass of the game. What is important is that the Vikings won the contest 26-20 and move onto the Divisional Round. The Saints meanwhile, were eliminated in overtime the same way last season ended.