By Rich Manfredi - @PhillyOwl
The New Orleans Saints are all the rage right now. They’re coming off a hard-fought victory over an 11-5 Carolina Panthers team. They have star power in the form of both fan-favorite veterans (Drew Brees, Cameron Jordan) and flashy new phenoms (Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore). It’s no shock that they’re being picked by many to go into Minnesota and upset the Vikings.
I’m telling you not to take the bait. It’s ill advised to pick against this Vikings team… especially when they’re playing in Minneapolis.
U.S. Bank Stadium, lovingly referred to as “Valhalla” by the Viking faithful, has become one of the toughest places to play in the NFL. Seating over 66,000 people, it is always packed to the brim, and their glass ceiling keeps all that noise in the building. The Vikings are owners of the top-ranked NFL defense in terms of yards allowed, and the unit performs even better at home.
Ferocious no matter where they go, Minnesota’s road numbers of 303.4 yards and 19 points allowed per game would be good for 3rd and 2nd in the NFL, respectively. Which makes it even more impressive that while at home, those numbers dip to 248.5 yards and 12.5 points. On top of that, 24 of their 37 sacks have come at home, and their league-best 25.2% third-down conversion rate is an even more absurd 23.2% in "Valhalla." As a reference point, the second closest unit was the Denver Broncos at 31.6%.
(The video below has explicit lyrics, so plug in those headphones at the office.)
As impressive as all these stats are, I know you’re probably saying, “Yeah, but these are the SAINTS. They’re loaded, and they’re led by Drew Brees.” That’s completely fair. After all, stats are only useful if they’re applied to a relevant situation. So, what are the Saints’ offensive strengths? The Vikings will certainly have their hands full, as New Orleans can pass OR run with extreme efficiency. Thankfully, Minnesota can defend in the air and on the ground alike.
The Vikings rank 1st in the NFL with just 13 TD passes allowed, and they’re tied for first with Jacksonville at just six yards per pass attempt. But unlike Jacksonville, who can be beaten on the ground (21st in rush yards and 26th in yards per carry) the Vikings rank second and fifth in those categories. Drew Brees is a first ballot Hall of Famer who can still ball with the best of ‘em, but even if he’s able to move the ball, it won’t be with the same laser-focused efficiency we’re used to.
Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram are the most dangerous backfield in the league, but this Vikings' front seven is up to the challenge. The tandem was held to 35 yards on 13 carries (2.69 YPC) back when the two teams faced off in Week 1. They’re not the only top-tier runners that this squad has neutralized as the likes of Le’Veon Bell (3.22 YPC) and Todd Gurley (2.47) haven’t been able to move the rock against Minnesota this season either.
We’ve all heard the old saying about an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. New Orleans has an undeniably elite offense, but calling them “unstoppable” is a bit of a reach. As recently as Week 17, Kamara & Ingram were held to 79 yards on 3.6 yards per tote and Brees threw just one TD… against a Buccaneers defense ranked dead last in the NFL.
The Vikings have only surrendered more than 23 points three times, and two of those came before Thanksgiving. They’re coming in hot. They’re well rested after two weeks off. And the best defense in the NFC is even better on their home turf. There’s a reason why they were the No. 2 seed.
Don’t underestimate Minnesota. Not now, when defense matters most.
Rich probably loves the NFL too much, the NHL too little, and the NBA/MLB just the right amount.