Vikings and Saints Winner is Favorite to make Super Bowl
New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees turns 39 years old next week. He'll likely feel older than that after the punishment he receives from the league's No. 1 defense Sunday in Minnesota. The most entertaining and anticipated match-up of the four divisional round games is the last to kickoff on Sunday, and the #4 seed Saints and #2 Vikings should be quite a ball game. We supported the #6 seed Falcons as 'Dog last week in their victory at LA against the Rams, and now a Falcons win as favorite over the #1 seed Eagles Saturday in Philadelphia would mean the winner of the Vikings-Saints game would host the NFC championship game on Sunday, Jan. 21. The Eagles are the first #1 seed in NFL history to be an underdog in the divisional round.
New Orleans Saints +4.5
Minnesota Vikings -4.5
Leading offshore sportsbook BookMaker has the Vikings -4.5 (-115) while a majority of offshore sportsbooks have moved to -5. Minnesota opened -3.5 and is taking money. The Vikings finished the regular season 13-3 SU and 11-5 ATS and were 7-1 at home. The Saints went 11-5 SU, 9-7 ATS and 4-4 on the road. The Vikings enter with the extra week of rest and preparation while the Saints beat division rival Carolina last week for the third time this season. The final score was 31-26 and the Saints did not cover as -6.5 point favorite.
Drew Brees is a future Hall of Fame QB who has won a Super Bowl while making 12 career playoff starts. Vikings QB Case Keenum makes his playoff debut. These playoff games go far beyond stats, as the match-ups, situations (rest, travel, recent week's games) and ability to make plays, convert and protect the football are key. So too is playing smart and avoiding game-changing or stupid penalties, which is out of our control as handicappers and bettors, as are officials penalty calls or turnovers.
The divisional playoffs have produced more points in the past seven seasons with 19 of the 28 games surpassing the total. This total is a tough call, but if the Saints play from behind or QB Brees has to pass more often as expected, then this game likely produces a little more scoring than expected. The Vikings offense should be balanced, efficient and continue to attack and find success like the Saints two recent opponents.
Here are some stats of note.
• The Vikings defense set an NFL record by holding every opponent during the regular season to 40% of less on 3rd down conversions.
• The Vikings defense ranked No. 1 in yards allowed (276 YPG) and No. 2 in yards-per-play (4.6). The Saints defense was league average in those two categories ranking No. 19 (341) and No. 21 (5.4).
• The Saints offense ranked No. 2 in the league at 392 YPG with a league-best 6.3 YPPL, and the Vikings ranked No. 11 (357 at 5.4).
• The Saints were the NFL's most explosive offense with 99 plays ending in gains of 20 or more yards.
But over the last two games, the Saints defense struggled in meaningful games, losing at Tampa Bay 31-24 while allowing 28 first downs, 81 plays and 455 yards offense (5.6 YPPL). The Bucs converted 13/18 on third down. In last week's playoff game vs. Carolina, the Saints won 31-26 and allowed 24 first downs, 71 plays and 413 yards (5.8 YPPL). The Panthers were 8/17 on third down. Both the Bucs and Panthers were able to control the ball, clock and chains more while out-gaining the Saints. The Panthers and their #3 run defense limited the Saints to 41 rushing yards and the Vikings #2 run defense (83 YPG) is going to be equally as tough and Brees will have to deliver a huge game again to keep the Saints alive.
Now the Vikings, with their superior defense at home and rested, filled with talented playmakers and led by an instinctive difference-maker Harrison Smith at safety, should be disruptive again as the loud home crowd creates chaos as well. The Saints defense is also opportunistic with a solid pass rush, lots of pass deflections and 20 interceptions to rank 3rd in the league. The Vikings are healthier on offense and settled into a rhythm under Keenum with his precise timing and decision-making, as well as effective play designs by offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur creating space for their receivers and backs. There will be balance and creativity on offense and an attack mode against a Saints defense that has shown some cracks the past few weeks.
Against the Spread
The Vikings are 12-4 ATS the past two seasons in their new state-of-the-art facility, U.S. Bank Stadium, home of this year's Super Bowl. Over the last three seasons playing at home, the Vikings are 14-2 ATS vs. non-division opponents. Head coach Mike Zimmer is a defensive specialist, and his defense is talented and terrific and likely the difference again in a similar result as week 1 when the Vikings beat the Saints 29-19 and Keenum was the backup quarterback watching from the sidelines. This time he's the lead man with a strong supporting cast on both sides of the ball led by an elite-level performing defense that will be the difference in victory.
FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industry's most insightful analysts. Read more great insights from Jay here and follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay