In the last playoff game of Wild Card weekend, the New Orleans Saints took down Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers 31-26 in the Superdome. Thanks in large part to Drew Brees picking apart a hapless Carolina secondary for 376 yards and 2 scores, as well as a series of mental mistakes by Carolina in the final minutes of regulation, the Saints survive to play another day in January.

What is their prize exactly? A trip 1,200 miles north to Minneapolis, where they will face off with the NFLs #1 ranked defense in the Minnesota Vikings. The #2 and #4 seeds in the NFC will face off in the Divisional round in what could be the best game of the 2018 playoffs. The Vikings and Saints did match up once in the 2017 regular season way back in week 1, where the Vikings won the home game 29-19. The game wasnt as close as the score even shows, as New Orleans scored a touchdown inside the 2-minute warning before the Vikings finished off the clock. However, these two teams couldnt be much more different now than they were back on September 12th, 2017.

For the obvious differences, we saw Sam Bradford throw for 346 yards and 3 TDs and Dalvin Cook rush for 127 yards on 22 caries for the Vikings. Dalvin later tore his ACL in week 4 and Sam Bradford hasnt been fully healthy since that week 1 matchup, leaving Case Keenum as the Vikings QB1 and the tandem of Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray to take over the RB helm.

From New Orleans perspective, Adrian Peterson was their leading rusher that day with 18 yards on 6 carries, followed by 7 carries for 18 yards by Alvin Kamara and 6 carries for 17 yards by Mark Ingram. Coby Fleener was the Saints leading receiver with 54 yards while top wide out Michael Thomas only mustered 45 yards through the air.

Soon after, the Saints dealt the former Viking Adrian Peterson to Arizona and the tandem of rookie sensation Kamara and vet Ingram became the first RB duo ever to each rack up 1,500 scrimmage yards in a single season. Their starting TE Coby Fleener was lost to the IR due to concussion related issues recently and is another productive member of the week 1 matchup who will not be playing next Sunday with a trip to the NFC Championship game on the line. (It is also important to note starting OG Andrus Peat suffered a broken fibula in the Wild Card game versus Carolina and will not be available for the remainder of the season.)

Based solely on those observations, one would assume that the Saints have evolved more and lost less since the first meeting of the two NFC powers. Michael Thomas going on to have another great year, Kamara and Ingram combining forces to become the most productive RB duo in the NFL and the emergence of rookie standout CB Marshon Lattimore all have many New Orleans fans claiming premature victory.

However the NFCs #2 seed hasnt been stagnant all year, either. The progression of perennial backup QB Case Keenum has been one of the NFLs best stories of the 2017 season. The revamped and restructured offensive line in Minnesota lead them to the #7 rushing attack in the NFL and only allowed 27 sacks, good for 8th in the NFL. Minnesota native and Pro Bowl WR Adam Thielen broke out once again this season, hauling in 91 passes for 1,276 yards and 4 TDs, all career highs. And I would be remiss if I didnt give the credit due to the defense, which ranked #1 in the NFL in total yards, yards per game, total points allowed and points per game while coming in at #2 in passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed, behind Jacksonville and Philadelphia respectively. This stout defense also ranked #1 in the NFL in 3rd down defense, allowing opponents to convert on just 25.25% of their 3rd downs. For perspective, according to ESPN stats no NFL defense has bested that mark this century. This historic Vikings defense not only dominated week after week, but stayed largely healthy all season long and are primed coming off the first round bye.

The Vikings and Saints also have some playoff history, as they recently met in the 2009 NFC Championship game. The infamous Bounty Game ended with New Orleans heading to the Super Bowl after a 31-28 overtime victory over Brett Favre and company. The painful Favre interception on the Saints 22-yard line still lives in Viking fans collective memories as an all-time painful play, and because of the circumstances surrounding Gregg Williams defense that year the Viking faithful has a lot of feelings pent up into this upcoming Divisional round game.

When its all said and done, this matchup between NFC heavyweights should be the best game of the weekend. The immovable object takes on the unstoppable force; the backup takes on the Hall of Famer; and most of all, its Zimmer versus Payton with a trip to the NFCCG on the line.

Be sure to watch this Sunday, January 14th at 4:40PM EST!

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