The New Orleans Saints have a chance to earn a spot in the NFC Championship on Sunday, but beating the Minnesota Vikings on the road won’t be easy.
The Vikings were 7-1 at U.S. Bank Stadium this season and are 12-4 thus far in their new stadium. The Saints finished the regular season 4-4 on the road, and they lost their last three road games.
There will be some external pressure on the Vikings this weekend as they’re the first Super Bowl host to play a divisional-round game at home. Minnesota is surely hoping for the Vikings to become the first Super Bowl home team, but the Saints have a chance to spoil that dream.
Here are three matchups that could determine the outcome of Sunday’s game:
Saints quarterback Drew Brees vs. Vikings safety Harrison Smith
No, it’s not a one-on-one matchup, but the cat-and-mouse game between Brees and Smith will likely play a huge role in how successful the Saints offense can be Sunday.
With the Vikings having an elite defensive line, expect Brees to try to throw quickly for most of the game, and he’ll have to pay attention for Smith laying in the weeds trying to bait him into throws. Smith had already established himself as a top-tier safety before this season, but he still had five interceptions because he has a nose for the ball.
Brees this season threw just eight interceptions, which were the fewest he’s had in his 12 seasons with the Saints. Some people will point to his decreased passing attempts — 536 were his fewest since 514 in 2009 — but just 1.5 percent of Brees’ passes were interceptions in 2017. That’s the lowest mark of his career and an indication of how well he’s protected the ball.
While Brees will have to avoid Smith downfield, don’t be surprised if the Vikings find times to send Smith on blitzes, too. What Brees does in terms of adjusting protection to Minnesota’s pressure looks will be just as important as what he does as a passer.
Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas vs. Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes
This wasn’t the one-on-one matchup many people expected in Week 1, but the Vikings have already said they plan to have Rhodes travel with Thomas on Sunday.
The Vikings secondary limited Thomas to five catches for 45 yards in Week 1, but if he has more single coverage, Brees will surely try to give Thomas opportunities to make plays. Of course, Rhodes’ physicality and ball skills will make it harder for Brees to connect with his favorite target.
With Bradon Coleman (neck) out on Sunday, Willie Snead could see some extra opportunities on Sunday, but the Saints passing game still moves best when Thomas is involved. Throughout his two seasons, Thomas has proven he can beat top-tier cornerbacks, and Sunday’s game will be one of his toughest tests.
“It comes down to competition and being on point and just staying focused and doing my job, which is competition,” Thomas said when discussing Rhodes.
This particular competition should provide plenty of entertainment.
Saints secondary vs….