2018 NFC Divisional Playoffs: Three things to watch in Saints-Vikings

To call Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game between the Saints and Vikings a rematch is a bit misleading.

The teams facing off this weekend are quite different from the squads that took the field Sept. 11 in what was a 29-19 Vikings win.

The uniforms and logos are the same and Sunday’s game will take place at U.S. Bank Stadium (4:40 p.m. ET, Fox), the same site as the season opener.

Leading that Vikings win were quarterback Sam Bradford and rookie running back Dalvin Cook. Both have since been lost for the season with injuries.

Case Keenum took over for Bradford and has been remarkable in leading the Vikings (13-3) to an NFC North title. The Vikings have used Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon to fill in for Cook, who had 127 rushing yards in the season opener,

The Saints (12-5) had former Vikings running back Adrian Peterson as their starter, but he was traded to the Cardinals after four games. That opened the door for rookie Alvin Kamara, who is a favorite to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Just because the Vikings won handily in Week 1 doesn’t mean Sunday’s playoff game will have a similar result.

Three things to watch in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game

1. Can the Saints run the ball? — The Vikings, who had the NFL’s best defense and ranked second in rush defense, held the Saints to 60 rushing yards in Week 1 as Peterson had only 18 yards on six carries. Kamara carried the ball seven times and Mark Ingram had six carries for 17 yards. The Saints had a hard time establishing the run early in the season, limited to 81 yards in a Week 2 loss to the Patriots.

But the Saints finished the season with the NFL’s fifth-ranked rush offense after over 129 yards per game. Ingram and Kamara were both selected to the Pro Bowl after they both tallied more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. Ingram led the team in rushing with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns while Kamara added 728 yards and eight scores on the ground.

Both were shut down by the Panthers last week as Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 376 yards and two scores. The Saints can win — and have won — with Brees carrying the team, but the Saints will have a much better shot at pulling off the upset if they can get Ingram and Kamara going.

2. Who will win the battle on third down? — The Vikings ranked either first or second in most team defensive stats, including on third down. Minnesota allowed opposing offenses to convert just 25.3 percent of third downs, the best in the NFL.

Despite having the NFL’s second-ranked offense, the Saints were surprisingly pedestrian on third down — converting just 38 percent of the time to rank 19th in the league.

Minnesota’s offense, conversely, was third-best at 44 percent. The Saints’ defense was tied for sixth-worst in allowing teams to convert 41 percent of their third-down chances. That tied them with the Raiders (6-10), Bengals (7-9) and Browns (0-16).

3. Will the stage be too big for Case Keenum? — Keenum is in his fifth NFL season, but 2017 was the first year in which he started more than nine games. Sunday will be his first career playoff game.

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