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New Orleans Saints offensive line to face stern test from Vikings defensive front

The New Orleans Saints didn't get everything they wanted. They weren't able to claim the Nos. 1 or 2 seeds and, consequently, didn't receive a bye week in the playoffs.

But the Saints (13-3) do have a home playoff game, as NFC South Division champions. And they have a chance to construct a road to the Super Bowl, beginning with Sunday's Wild Card game against Minnesota (10-6) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And if any team has momentum entering the playoffs, it probably is one that finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak, by an average score of 38-15 (including two road wins by an average score of 40-19).

The Vikings likely will prove to be a stiffer test. Here are some methods that'll help the Saints pass it.

  1. When Drew Brees has time, the Saints usually win. That formula hasn't deviated since Brees joined the Saints in 2006, and it remains true now. And it'll especially be important against Minnesota, which has a pair of defensive ends, Danielle Hunter (14.5 sacks) and Everson Griffen (eight sacks), that are handfuls individually and can wreck an offensive gameplan collectively. The Saints have a good counter in two of the best offensive tackles in the league, Terron Armstead (left tackle) and Ryan Ramczyk (right/first-team All-Pro in 2019). New Orleans won't hesitate to help if needed, but they rarely need it. And if they don't need it, and Brees has time, let's just say he has been on a heater since the beginning of December, completing 75 percent of his passes for 1,138 yards and 15 touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the last four regular-season games. The NFC's Offensive Player of the Month will be ready.
  2. Maybe, Saints fans can chill just a bit about the team's No. 2 receiver. The Vikings will be the latest team to try to keep Michael Thomas from getting his, after he set an NFL single-season record with 149 catches, for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns. (He led the league in the first two categories, and second place wasn't close.) But what we've seen is an emergence of tight end Jared Cook over the second half of the regular season, with Cook catching 28 passes for 537 yards and seven touchdowns in the last eight games. He presents a matchup problem for most defenses and has helped open up New Orleans' offense. Defenses can key on Thomas and Alvin Kamara at their own peril with Cook on the field.
  3. It's not breaking news that Minnesota's offense is much more potent with a healthy Dalvin Cook at running back. And it also is no surprise that most of the time, when the Saints are successful defensively, it's because they were able to shut down the opponent's running game. Cook missed the final two regular-season games and still ran for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns, and had seven runs of 20-plus yards. New Orleans does a good job of populating to the ball, which is why it has held opponents to 91.3 yards per game. The Saints are healthy at linebacker, and they'll need to be in order to hem in Cook.
  4. This is a good time for the Saints to be returning to good health in the secondary, too. Three starters missed the regular-season finale; two (safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell) should be ready to play Sunday. It's an all-hands game, and New Orleans needs everyone in order to make like difficult for Vikings receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. We're well aware of Diggs' history against the Saints, and Thielen, who has been injured during the season, is back at full speed now. If the Saints' goal is to put the game on the shoulders of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions this season, then they effectively must deal with Diggs (1,130 yards, six touchdowns, 17.9 yards per catch) and Thielen (30-418-6). Marshon Lattimore, as usual, will be key in man-to-man coverage.
  5. The Saints haven't played a home game in almost three weeks. Ride the adrenaline provided by the crowd. There's a possibility that this will be the final home game New Orleans plays this season. If it is, make the most of a home-field advantage that has been phenomenal since 2006.

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