Saints must clear two big hurdles if they want to upset the Vikings

MINNEAPOLIS — They combine to produce one of the most difficult environments for a visiting football team to endure. The crowd noise and the Vikings’ defense will be tough for the Saints to contend with Sunday night when they meet in an NFC divisional playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium.

A sellout and vocal crowd will be ready to do its part in what will be the Vikings’ first divisional home game since 2009. The Vikings’ defense has feasted off the noise and encouragement of their fans, holding opponents to just 12.5 per game in their building and holding them to 23 conversions on 99 third-down opportunities, or just 23.2 percent. There were three home games in which Minnesota allowed just a single third-down conversion all game.

That’s the kind of the hostility they would like to continue when Drew Brees and Co. come to town.

“It ought to be an exciting game,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think our crowd will be into it. It should be nice and loud and help on defense. Hopefully, we’ll play a good game for them.”

The Vikings went 7-1 at home en route to a 13-3 record that earned the No.2 seed in the NFC. They finished the season ranked first in fewest points allowed with 15.8 per game. Five of the previous 10 teams that led in that category went on to the Super Bowl, winning three times. That’s why the Vikings success in these playoffs will hinge on how well its defense performs, beginning with their matchup against the explosive Saints.

The two teams met in the first game of the season with the Vikings claiming a 29-19 win at Minnesota. Neither team puts much stock in a game played four months ago.

“Their defense is real good,” Saints running back Mark Ingram said. “We didn’t have an identity as a team in Week 1. But we found out who we are. We’re going to go in there with a confidence and a swagger, and play the kind of ball we know how to play. They’ve got a great defense and a great team, but we feel like we can beat anybody. We’re just going to go out there and execute and play the best we can and bring a W back home.”

The Saints defeated Carolina, 31-26, in the wild-card round to advance to Sunday’s game. There has been a lot of talk about how the Vikings have a chance to be the first team to play a Super Bowl on their home field, but Zimmer isn’t looking that far ahead.

“With the playoff, you lose and you go home,” he said. “We have the Saints and we can’t afford to look past that.”

Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore vs. Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs

Lattimore, the No. 11-overall draft pick out of Ohio State, has played well for the Saints in his rookie year and figures to shadow Diggs, who caught 64 passes for 849 yards and eight TDs this season. He caught seven passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns in the season-opening win over the Saints. Lattimore has five interceptions on the season and feels much more confident than he did when he faced the Vikings in the season opener.

“All I knew was man [coverage] for the first game,” he said. “I didn’t understand zone and concepts. Now I know all that. It’s going to be a totally different game.”

Pat Shurmur wanted: The Vikings’ offensive coordinator is in high demand for head coaching vacancies this year. He has been a head coach in the NFL before having served in that capacity for the Browns in 2011 and 2012. He went 9-23 with the Browns, which doesn’t seem that bad considering what the Browns have done lately.

“I enjoyed the time I spent with those teams,” he said of his interviews, “but you quickly get back into preparing for the Saints.”

Ground swell: Look past quarterbacks Case Keenum and Drew Brees, and each team has a capable running attack. The Vikings are seventh in the league averaging 122 yards rushing per game, and the Saints have run for 129 per game. Saints running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara combined for 3,094 total offensive yards this year. They’re the first pair of running backs on the same team to each have at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage in a season.

Little big men: Keenum is 6-foot-1. Brees is 6-foot. Both are undersized in today’s quest for taller quarterbacks. Keenum admitted he follows Brees because he is a smaller quarterback.

“I’ve been a fan of his for a long time,” Keenum said. “He’s another Texas quarterback that has done well. I’ve admired how he moves the ball down field and what kind of leader he is. He’s someone I try to learn from.” Brees roots for the little guy, too. “I’ve been happy for him knowing the road he’s traveled to get to where he is,” Brees said.

Sam in shadows: Quarterback Sam Bradford returned to practice this week as he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery, but the Vikings don’t figure to dress the Week 1 starter for Sunday’s game.

“He’s working, but he’s got a ways to go still,” Zimmer said.

Teddy Bridgewater will be the backup to Keenum.

Home crowd and that defense should be enough for Vikings to inch past the Saints, who hope turnovers will help them score.

Vikings 21, Saints 18


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