Vikings at Saints: Keys to a playoff victory

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 08: Dalvin Cook #33 of the Minnesota Vikings carrels the ball for a gain in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 8, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Imag ((Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images))

We’re now in the second season of the NFL, the postseason. The Minnesota Vikings head to New Orleans to face the Saints in the NFC Wild Card Playoffs.

It’s the first time the Vikings and Saints have met in the playoffs since the divisional playoffs after the 2017 season, when Case Keenum and Stefon Diggs connected for the “Minneapolis Miracle.” It’s Mike Zimmer’s third playoff appearance with the Vikings in six years.

The Vikings are 7.5-point underdogs. So how can they leave New Orleans with the upset? Here are some keys.

Get Dalvin Cook involved early

Dalvin Cook said this week he feels refreshed, and he’s ready to go. Cook did not play in the Vikings’ 23-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers, and rested against the Chicago Bears due to a shoulder injury. That same injury knocked him out early in the third quarter against the Lions, and at the L.A. Chargers.

The Vikings need to get Cook the ball on offense early and often Sunday, both to test the Saints’ defense and see how healthy that shoulder is. Cook has 1,135 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the season, and more than 1,600 total yards from scrimmage. He’s got five 100-yard rushing games on the season, but hasn’t gotten more than 30 yards rushing since their Sunday Night Football win at Dallas. A big game from Cook would go a long way in a Vikings’ victory.

Keep Saints offense off the field

Dalvin Cook will play a big part in this as well, but the best defense for the Vikings on Sunday might be long, sustained drives by the offense. The longer you keep Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense off the field, the better chance the Vikings have to win, especially if drives end in touchdowns. The Vikings need to establish the run between Cook and Alexander Mattison, convert on third down in what will be an extremely loud Mercedes Benz Superdome and take advantage of every opportunity they get.

The Saints can’t score as long as Brees is standing on the sideline.

Defense needs to prevent big plays

Despite missing five games with a thumb injury, Drew Brees is completing more than 74 percent of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards and 27 touchdowns, with just four interceptions. The Vikings’ defense needs to have its best game of the season. They have a tall task in containing Brees, the NFL’s best receiver in Michael Thomas (1,725 yards, 9 TDs), Alvin Kamara and all-everything Taysom Hill. The Saints are third in scoring in the NFL at 28.6 points per game, and have scored at least 34 points in six of their past seven games.

The Vikings’ defense will be without Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes. Andrew Sendejo and Stephen Weatherly returned to practice Friday, and Eric Kendricks is expected to play. They can’t let Brees make big plays, and they can’t allow yards after contact. Tackling will be a huge factor.

Vikings need a big game from Kirk Cousins

Everyone knows the narrative on Kirk Cousins by now. For whatever reason, he struggles in the big moment under the spotlight. Facing consistent pressure against Green Bay, he finished 16-of-31 for 122 yards. He had 276 yards and two touchdowns at Seattle, but the Vikings still lost 37-30. He’s 0-9 on Monday Night Football, and has an abysmal record against above .500 teams. His only win this season against a team with a winning record came against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6. Coincidentally, that’s also the last time the Vikings’ offense was at full strength.

They’ll have everyone back Sunday, and they need the Cousins that was the NFC Player of the Month for October. He led the Vikings to four straight wins, while throwing for nearly 1,000 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception. The offensive line needs to keep Cousins upright, especially with Cameron Jordan and his 15.5 sacks on the Saints’ defensive line. The Vikings went 4-3 in their last seven games, and Cousins had 13 passing touchdowns over that stretch.

If Cousins and Cook can have big games, and the defense that Zimmer expects shows up, the Vikings have a chance to leave New Orleans with a win.