Two straight losses took the New Orleans Saints (10-4) out of the No. 1 seed, but a fourth straight NFC South Division title remains very much in play.
The Saints are looking for one victory to accomplish that, and Minnesota (6-8), obviously, wouldn't be averse to ruining Christmas Day for the Saints in the game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans already has earned a playoff spot and has eyes on the No. 2 seed if it can't vault to No. 1. First, though, it'll attempt to handle the Vikings. A few steps to ponder:
- COOL COOK: The mantra in Minnesota is "Let Dalvin Cook," and running back Dalvin Cook has obliged by flaming opposing defenses this season. He has a league-leading 15 rushing touchdowns and career highs in rushing yards (1,484, second-most in the league), attempts (297) and yards per carry (5). New Orleans has allowed a totally un-Saint-like 425 rushing yards in the last two games, so it's looking to have a get-right game against the Vikings. Easier said than done against the league's fifth-best rushing team (147.7 yards per game). Gap integrity, discipline and a heaping helping of linebacker Demario Davis are factors that can get New Orleans back on the right track.
- STAY ON THE FIELD: Once the Saints' defense gets off the field, the offense has to do a better job staying on it this week. In Drew Brees' first game back after a four-game injury absence, the Saints were one of 11 on third down against Kansas City. That lack of efficiency contributed to a season-low 60 rushing yards, a season-low 18:46 in time of possession, and a season-high 92 snaps played by the defense. On a short week, the offense needs to do as much as possible to support the defense. It'll help that receiver Marquez Callaway returns after a stint on reserve/injured, but it'll probably be more helpful that Brees has a game under his belt and will be closer to establishing a rhythm.
- SMOTHER AND COVER: Not lost among the Saints' ironman defensive performance against the Chiefs was this: Patrick Mahomes, with all those offensive weapons, had 254 yards on 47 passing attempts. New Orleans' pass defense was outstanding, and it'll have to repeat that performance against Minnesota's receivers, led by former LSU standout Justin Jefferson (73 catches, 1,182 yards and seven touchdowns), the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Adam Thielen (62-771-13), with whom New Orleans is very familiar. Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Jackrabbit Jenkins really have accepted all challenges, and C.J. Gardner-Johnson is being recognized as the standout that he is. The Saints sacked Mahomes four times and if the Vikings aren't careful, defensive end Trey Hendrickson (12.5 sacks) will spend a decent amount of time in their backfield. Kirk Cousins was much too comfortable in the pocket in last season's playoff game, a situation New Orleans will look to rectify.
- EARLY BIRDS: New Orleans has been outscored 31-9 in the first half of its last two games, and while it has managed to rally and close the gap in two three-point losses, starting quicker is a priority. The defense started slow against Philadelphia, and the offense took its turn against Kansas City. Neither unit needs to be perfect Friday, but each needs to do enough to make sure there isn't an early deficit to overcome.
TONY'S CHACHERE'S KEY INGREDIENT TO BECOME A TAILGATE MVP:
Tony Chachere's He-Man Chili