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With the NFL regular season finally over, the NFL playoffs are officially here. The NFC has been an intense battle, with teams like the Seahawks and 49ers beating up on each other every week. This fierce competition will continue when the Minnesota Vikings head to the Bayou for a 2017 playoff rematch against the New Orleans Saints. This matchup will feature Kirk Cousins, who is seeking his first playoff victory against Drew Brees, who is looking to avenge his devastating playoff loss to the Rams last season. However, given that the Vikings have fewer injuries than the Saints, depth might be the X-factor for a Vikings victory.
Date: Sunday, January 5th, 2020
Time: 1:05 PM ET
Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium – New Orleans, Louisiana
Minnesota Vikings: A. Mattison (ankle) Q, E. Kendricks (quadriceps) Q, D. Cook (shoulder) Q, B. Gedeon (concussion) IR, B. Jones (knee/MCL) IR, C. Beebe (ankle) IR, D. Morgan (knee) PUP
New Orleans Saints: M. Williams (groin) Q, V. Bell (questionable), E. Apple (ankle) Q, Z. Line (knee) Q, K. Hogan (hamstring) IR, S. Hampton (undisclosed) IR, J. Bademosi (foot) IR, S. Rankins (ankle) IR, M. Davenport (foot) IR, J. Vander-Laan (head) IR, K. Kirkwood (hamstring) IR, A. Carr (ankle) IR, K. Elliss (knee) IR, A. Anzalone (shoulder) IR, C. Tom (undisclosed) IR, J. Martin (shoulder/labrum) IR, C. Jumper (undisclosed) IR, G. Griffin (undisclosed) IR, S. Vereen (undisclosed) Q
Minnesota Vikings Analysis
This Minnesota Vikings come into their playoff game as one of the league’s healthiest teams, with only seven injuries. Unfortunately for the Vikings, their first and second string running backs, Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison, are both questionable to play in this game. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Dalvin Cook is amongst the league’s elite in terms of yards after contact per carry and has been versatile back with excellent receiving skills. Cook also ranks in the top six for DYAR, DVOA, and effective yards, which indicate that he is an efficient running back who can make the most of his opportunities.
While the loss of both Cook and Mattison is horrible for the Vikes, the stellar run-blocking of their offensive line should make sure that they don’t miss a beat. According to NFL Outsiders, the Vikings have the league’s sixth-most efficient run-blocking OL, with a 67% power rush rate, and the league’s fifth-lowest stuffed rate. Additionally, their current RB, Mike Boone, had an efficient and productive game in week 17 by running for 148 yards, 8.7 yards/carry, and one TD. Therefore, the Vikings are more than capable of running well regardless of which running back is in their backfield.
When you look at the box score statistics, Stephon Diggs isn’t the most impactful wideout in the NFL, considering that he ranks 17th in terms of receiving yardage with 1,130 yards. However, when you look at the advanced analytics, Diggs ranks in the top ten for WR DYAR and DVOA. Moreover, Diggs has only dropped four of his 94 targets, which equates to a 4.3% drop rate. Especially considering that his teammate, Adam Thielen, has struggled to be productive since his return from injury, Kirk Cousins is going to need to rely on Diggs.
Despite Kyle Rudolph’s bounce-back season this year, he is likely to have a lackluster performance against the New Orleans Saints. Throughout the regular season, the Saints defense held tight ends to less than 50 receiving yards per game, along with only five total touchdown receptions. The Saints’ ability to limit tight end TDs will drastically limit Rudolph because much of his production is the result of his red-zone efficiency. Therefore, the Vikings will need to lean on Diggs and their running game if they are going to be successful.
The biggest question for the Vikings offensively will be how Kirk Cousins fares in a big-time game. In prime-time games, Kirk Cousins has an abysmal 7-15 record (.318) and has yet to win a playoff game throughout his eight-year career. However, throughout this season, Kirk has been a tier two QB, who ranks in the top ten for DYAR and DVOA, while also throwing 3,603 yards, 26 TDs, and only six interceptions. He also ranks in the top six for True Passer Rating and Clean Pocket Completion Percentage, indicating that he has been an elite QB when not under pressure. Therefore the Saints’ pass rush will be vital in their attempt to stop the Minnesota offense.
The only injury that is currently problematic for the Vikings’ defense is Eric Kendricks, who is currently questionable with a quad injury. If Kendricks is unable to suit up, the Vikings will desperately need another linebacker to handle coverage across the middle of the field. Especially considering that the Saints often target Michael Thomas on slant and dig routes, Kendricks’ potential absence would be detrimental to the Vikings coverage.
Speaking of coverage, the Vikings secondary has played phenomenally well. They currently rank seventh in terms of defensive passing efficiency, while holding opponents to the tenth-fewest passing yards per contest. This has primarily been the result of their stupendous safeties, such as Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith. Besides Harris and Smith, Holton Hill, Tray Waynes, and Mackenzie Alexander have played well throughout this season. However, they will need Xavier Rhodes to step up if they have any chance of containing Michael Thomas and the Saints offense.
Minnesota Vikings Depth Chart
New Orleans Saints Analysis
Drew Brees is currently one of the most efficient passers in the NFL. Brees finished the season with the eighth-most passing yards/game and a 27:4 TD: INT ratio. He also recorded the league’s best DVOA, second-best DYAR, second-best passer rating, and the third-best QBR. Plus, he broke Peyton Manning’s record for most passing TDs in NFL history, which indicates that he is still an elite QB who’s both productive and efficient.
While Drew Brees has remained an elite quarterback, his teammate Alvin Kamara has witnessed significant regression due to injuries. Last season, Kamara ranked in the top three for both DYAR and DVOA, while finishing with the sixth-most scrimmage yards per game. Although this season ranks 19th for DYAR, 15th for DVOA, and finished 14th for scrimmage yards per game. Surprisingly, Kamara’s backup, Latavius Murray, has been a more efficient rusher, who currently has a higher DYAR and DVOA (12th and 9th highest respectively). Since RB Shane Vereen is also possible to return on Sunday, Sean Payton and the Saints may opt to utilize Kamara’s backups significantly.
Michael Thomas has been the NFL’s best wideout in 2019. Thomas finished first in the NFL for receptions and receiving yardage with 149 catches along with 1,725 yards. Thomas has even excelled against the toughest coverage, posting the league’s best-contested catch rate. Besides Thomas, the Saints lacked a second wide receiver to take pressure off of Thomas. As a result, New Orleans worked out Antonio Brown to bolster their receiving corps. If Brown is able to suit up for Sunday, then Brees will have a great deep-threat to complement Thomas on the other side.
The strength of the Saints defense has been their front seven. The Saints defense currently holds opponents to the fourth-fewest rushing yards per game, and rank in the top five for rushing-defense efficiency. Moreover, their DL has accumulated 51 sacks this year due to the play of their edge rusher, Cameron Jordan, who has accounted for 15.5 sacks (3rd-most). Even though the Minnesota Vikings have a formidable offensive line, the Saints pass rush and run defense will likely contain the Vikings offense from excelling on Sunday.
Even though the Saints’ front seven has been daunting, their secondary is only average at best. The Saints secondary is ranked 13th in terms of pass-defense efficiency while ranking 19th in the NFL for passing yards per game. Even worse, the Saints are dealing with a litany of defensive back injuries suffered by Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell, and Eli Apple. If none of them are able to play against the Vikings, Kirk Cousins will have a field day moving the chains on Sunday.
New Orleans Saints Depth Chart
Betting Pick: Vikings +7.5
Early on, most bettors are picking the Saints to win in this game. However, the Vikings come in as the healthier team who are only dealing with an injury to Eric Kendricks. On the other side of the field, the Saints have three injuries sustained to their defensive backs. If none of them are able to play, Kirk Cousins is primed to have a field day against the Saints defense. Even though the Vikings’ two best running backs are injured, the Vikings offensive line should be able to create enough of a rushing lane for Mike Boone.
Given that the over-under opens at 46.5, I am inclined to take the over. Both the Saints and Vikings average more than 25 points per game, which means that they are both likely to have high offensive output. Plus, the stellar production from both Kirk Cousins and Drew Brees indicates that both will move the ball exceptionally well.
Dalvin Cook’s injury could hinder his fantasy ceiling on Sunday. Given that the Minnesota Vikings have a great run-blocking offensive line, they will have success leaning on any of their backs. In addition, the Saints defense ranks in the top five in terms of limiting opponent rushing yards per game. Therefore Cook is a low-end RB2/decent flex option this weekend.
Fantasy owners should stray away from Kyle Rudolph on Sunday. Over his last four games, Rudolph has failed to record a touchdown reception, which is alarming, considering Rudolph excels the most in the red zone. Additionally, the Saints have held tight ends to five touchdowns this season, which further lowers his ceiling. Therefore, he is solely a TE3 option, who should be avoided if possible.
Stephon Diggs is a reliable WR1 option on Sunday. Over his last five games, Diggs has been a reliable fantasy receiver who is averaging nearly 15 fantasy points per game. Given that Diggs has 94 targets along with a 4.3% drop rate, Kirk Cousins is likely to look for him since he is dependable. Also, since Thielen is struggling post-injury, Diggs is expected to have one of his best outings of the season this weekend.
Over the last month, Drew Brees is averaging an outstanding 28.3 fantasy points per game. Brees has been both productive and efficient by throwing for 250+ yards and 3+ TDs in five of his last six games. Despite a matchup against a daunting Minnesota defense, you can expect Brees to perform well since he has been effective this season against tough defenses like the 49ers. Therefore, Brees is slated to be a QB1 in most leagues.
As of right now, Jared Cook is a high-end TE2 in most leagues. Even though Cook hasn’t received a high number of receptions since Week 13, he has been able to maximize his yards per reception by exploiting favorable matchups against slower linebackers. With Eric Kendricks possibly inactive for Sunday, Cook is likely to continue this same success against the Vikings defense. Especially considering that Cook has scored 10+ fantasy points in nine of his last ten outings, he is a dependable TE with a higher floor than the average tight end.