No one would confuse Minneapolis for New Orleans. In fact, the only time you hear “bourbon” in the Twin Cities is if someone is substituting for brandy in an Old Fashioned.
But a Vikings win Sunday would bring them one step closer to the first-ever home Super Bowl, the kind of party that would make the French Quarter proud.
A New Orleans Saints victory would bring the team one game away from its third trip to U.S. Bank Stadium and may have to set up a beignet shop or insist on Hurricanes being sold at the Super Bowl.
The only hurricane Sunday in Minnesota wore purple and defended Drew Brees. The Vikings raced out to a 17-0 lead in a dominating early performance in every facet.
But the Saints scored consecutive touchdowns in the second half, each catches by Michael Thomas, to keep New Orleans in it.
New Orleans came all the way back with an Alvin Kamara touchdown with just over three minutes left that could have been the game-winner but wasn’t. A Kai Forbath 53-yard field goal with 1:34 left also could have been the game-winner.
Will Lutz split the uprights with 43 seconds left. Surely, that was the game-winner.
But Marcus Williams, a rookie safety playing in the biggest moment of his life, missed a tackle that would have ended the game on Stefon Diggs, and the Vikings stunned the Saints on a walk-off touchdown as time expired. Such pandemonium erupted, the Vikings couldn’t even get lined up to kick the extra point, giving the Vikings a 29-24 win.
Here are three things we learned about the Saints in this instant NFC classic.
Drew Brees is still Drew Brees
Two weeks in a row, Brees led with this same heading.
The future Hall of Famer shined against a vaunted Panthers defense, and led one of the most impressive comebacks in recent playoff history against one of the best defenses in football, on the road, with a chance at the NFC Championship Game on the line.
After going down 0-17 early, Brees came out firing in the second half, putting up 177 yards and three touchdowns on 16 for 22 passing and playing well enough down the stretch to get a win.
There were two early interceptions, helping build the lead the Saints eventually had to overcome. Those can’t simply be thrown away. But when his team needed him to come through in the second half, against that same defense that put the clamps all the way on New Orleans in the first half, Brees delivered.
It’s not his fault a rookie safety couldn’t make a tackle.
Running game goes quiet in big spot
New Orleans boasted one of the best run games in football in 2017 with the 1-2 punch of Mark Ingram and breakout rookie Alvin Kamara. But against a stout Vikings defense, the Saints ground game stalled.
Ingram put up just 25 yards on his 10 carries while Kamara put up another 44 on his 10 carries. In all, the Saints finished with just 81 yards on 23 carries, a 3.5-yard-per-carry average.
The run game and improved defense were supposed to make it easier for the Saints to get a win on the road, but one of the critical pieces in that equation failed to come through in a game the team needed it most.
Sure, the Vikings defense was a top-five unit against the run in defensive efficiency, but it’s not as though the Saints haven’t found ways to get their run game going against good defenses in the past.
Alvin Kamara is the Saints’ No. 2 WR
We sort of already knew this one, but the inconsistency of this offense all season, and once against Sunday afternoon, often comes back to simply not having the “other” guy opposite Michael Thomas.
Thomas, the most productive receiver in history through two years, did his part, finishing with 85 yards on seven catches with two touchdowns.
But the second leading receiver was Kamara, whose go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter looked to be the game-winner as part of a furious comeback from the Saints.
Ted Ginn Jr. seeing 11 targets simply isn’t the way to generate top-tier offense, and with the top teams having a corner capable of just locking on Thomas (no one is shutting down Thomas, he’s way too good for that), the Saints could use someone else to help the passing game.
It was supposed to be Coby Fleener, but he’s been hurt and ineffective for the most part, and while Ginn has been a big-play receiver this season, he’s not the down-in-and-down-out guy the Saints can rely on.
Surprisingly, Kamara, even after that huge touchdown, wasn’t a major factor getting the Saints into field goal range in the waning seconds, necessitating a fourth-and-10 conversion. In fact, it wasn’t until a third-and-1 in the final seconds that Kamara got a touch on that final drive.
If you’re looking at free agent or draft priorities, a reliable pass catcher at tight end or receiver makes sense.