EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In most cases, the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings would take a strong look at their Week 1 matchup as they prepare for Sunday's NFC playoff game.
In this case, what happened in that Sept. 11 opener is indicative of the teams meeting in Minnesota for the second time this year.
Both teams underwent significant changes since the Vikings' 29-19 victory.
Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford completed 27-of-32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns in the first meeting, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Bradford played only a single half the rest of the season as Case Keenum replaced the injured Bradford and put himself in MVP consideration.
New Orleans jettisoned former Vikings running back Adrian Peterson after a miserable four-game run and thrived with Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, becoming one of the league's most dangerous running back duos. The Saints' defense also started to find its way.
"They're a different team than they were Week 1, but so are we," said Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph, who scored a touchdown in the first game. "Everyone in the NFL is trying to find their identity early on. They're different from a personnel standpoint and they're also different from a team, like us, who has found their identity."
The teams found their identity but had plenty of personnel changes along the way. The Vikings' defense is healthy, but Keenum has taken hold of the starting quarterback spot and rookie running back Dalvin Cook, who ran for 127 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting, has been out since Week 4 because of a torn ACL.
"There are some similarities in regards to scheme, but I think when you go through a course of an NFL season and you look at the attrition that takes place, there are eight or nine of our starters that are playing in that game that aren't playing in this game, and I'm sure the same exists for Minnesota," New Orleans coach Sean Payton told reporters this week, according to the team's website. "And you begin to take shape as the season progresses to who you become and I think both teams have done that."
In the Saints' case, they altered their offensive identity to rely on Ingram and Kamara. New Orleans ranked fifth in the league in rushing this season as Ingram ran for a career-high 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns. Kamara led the league with 6.1 yards per carry as the Saints had an NFC-best 4.7 yards per carry as a team.
Peterson had six carries for 18 yards in the first meeting in Minnesota. With the carries being split three ways, Ingram had six carries and Kamara touched the ball 11 times on offense.
"They got a little bit of everything," Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said. "Ingram's more of a downhill runner. Kamara is definitely a guy that can bounce to the outside. He's got speed to hit the edge and they're both really good in the screen game."
The Vikings were second in the league in run defense, allowing 83.6 yards per game. They've held two of their past three opponents to fewer than 46 yards.
Selling out to stop the run isn't a solid strategy either. In last week's win against Carolina, the Saints ran 22 times for 41 yards as the Panthers dared New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees to beat them.
Brees had 376 passing yards and two touchdowns, and receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn each had more than 100 yards receiving against the Panthers.
"We've been telling y'all all year, man, don't sleep on Drew," Ingram told the New Orleans Times Picayune. "And if you're going to stack the box and try and stop the run and take us out the game, he's going to hurt you. We've been telling you he's the best quarterback in the league and he's still Drew Brees. He proved that (Sunday)."
Perhaps the biggest change for the Saints has been the development of the defense. After allowing 470 total yards to Minnesota in Week 1, New Orleans gave up 555 to New England the following week. Slowly, communication improved on the back end combined with the play of rookie Marcus Lattimore and Ken Crawley at cornerback.
The Saints were third in the NFL and first in the NFC with 20 interceptions in the regular season. Lattimore led the team with five.
"He's a good player," Vikings Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen said of Lattimore. "He's physical. He can run with anybody. He's playing with a lot of confidence right now. He's got great ball skills. He's pretty much got everything you need to be a really good corner in this league."
New Orleans also pressures the passer. Cameron Jordan tied Minnesota's Everson Griffen for fourth in the league with 13 sacks. As a team, the Saints' 42 sacks were tied for seventh in the NFL.
Like Brees, Keenum didn't make mistakes once replacing Bradford. He threw seven interceptions, one fewer than Brees, and the Vikings allowed the seventh-fewest sacks in the league behind a patchwork offensive line.
"He is playing well," Payton told the team's website of Keenum. "You can see him getting the ball to a lot of different guys. These guys, I think, have done a great job on offense. I think they are playing a game really that suits both sides of the ball."
Minnesota should head into Sunday healthy, including the return of rookie center Pat Elflein from a shoulder injury.
New Orleans is battered. Left guard Andrus Peat and defensive tackle Tony McDaniel were placed on injured reserve this week. Receiver Brandon Coleman also missed Wednesday's practice with a neck injury. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (back), left tackle Terron Armstead (thigh), defensive end Trey Hendrickson (ankle), defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (ankle) cornerback P.J. Williams (ankle), Jordan (knee) and defensive tackle David Onyemata (thumb) were limited in the week's first practice.
Atlanta Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley, who led the league with 15.5 sacks in 2015, will move back to defensive end permanently in 2018. Beasley moved to linebacker in 2017 and had just five sacks in his third season in the league. Beasley will be better off strictly rushing the passer instead of dropping into coverage and spying the quarterback. While he may not return to 15 sacks like he did in 2016, his sack numbers should be back on the rise, making him more attractive in IDP leagues.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Eli Rogers (knee) suffered a torn ACL in the Divisional Round loss to the Jaguars last weekend. It's a tough blow for Rogers, as he'll now be unlikely to start the 2018 season on time. The slot man took a big step backwards in his second season, catching only 18 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown in 14 games. His struggles this year were mainly due to the presence of impressive rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster. Rogers' injury is good news for Martavis Bryant, though, as he could see a bigger role with Rogers sidelined.
New England Patriots running backs Rex Burkhead (knee) and Mike Gillislee (knee) are questionable for Sunday's AFC Championship against Jacksonville. Burkhead was limited in practice all week. He was held out of the Divisional Round but looks on track to return. Gillislee is closer to returning than he was last week, but his status remains up in the air. Even if healthy, Gillislee is not a lock to be active.
Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette (ankle) was limited in practice all week and was taken off the final injury report for the AFC title game against the Patriots. Fournette bounced back good from his ankle aggravation in the Divisional Round. He managed three touchdowns to help beat the Steelers, but he was much less effective after returning after halftime. Fournette and Jacksonville's ground game must be effective this Sunday in order to keep Tom Brady off the field and spring the upset. Fournette will be a volume-based DFS play this weekend.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (hand) is listed as questionable for Sunday's AFC Championship game against Jacksonville. Brady confirmed he returned to practice Friday, but did not offer much on his status. Brady was also seen in gloves on both hands over the last two days, prompting some to think that he is managing an injury that is worse than expected. He may just be using gloves due to cold temperatures, but it remains to be seen if he will use them during the AFC title game against the Jaguars. Even still, Brady is expected to be fine for Sunday's matchup with Jacksonville.
Jacksonville Jaguars shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey could be matched up quite often with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in the AFC title game with safety Tashaun Gipson (foot) questionable to play. "I'll do whatever is best for the team to help us get a win," Ramsey told WJXL-FM in Jacksonville, per Hays Carlyon of gridironnow.com. "Whether it's guarding anybody. It doesn't matter." However, Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone gave no indication that Ramsey would cover Gronk. It depends on how Jacksonville wants to play things, but either way, Gronkowski will be by far the top fantasy tight end play in Championship Weekend.
Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said he sees a lot of Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in quarterback Mitch Trubisky, and Helfrich also like's Trubisky's attractive skills and coachability. Helfrich coached Mariota at the University of Oregon. Helfrich will be tasked with improving Trubisky in his second NFL season. "Mitchell has a tight release," Helfrich said. "He's an accurate passer. They also have a couple of things similar that make them inaccurate. Their feet take them out of position. I sense from talking to a couple of offensive linemen, and this was unsolicited, when your offensive linemen are talking about how hard your quarterback works, that's a great sign." Trubisky mainly looked overmatched in his first NFL season, but to be fair, he didn't have much to work with in the passing game. If Chicago adds some decent pass catchers in the offseason, Trubisky should be able to take a step forward, but he's still more attractive in dynasty leagues than in redraft ones.
Minnesota Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo (concussion) remains in the concussion protocol, but head coach Mike Zimmer expects him to play against the Eagles in the NFL title game. Despite the head injury, all signs point to Sendejo being out there as the Vikes attempt to advance to the Super Bowl in their home dome. Sendejo's presence will make it even tougher on Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles in an already tough matchup.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (hand) declined to say if he will play in Sunday's AFC Championship game. Brady confirmed he returned to practice Friday, but did not offer much on his status. There should be more clarity when the Patriots release their injury report. Brady is expected to be fine for Sunday's matchup with Jacksonville.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (back) is questionable for Sunday's NFC Championship game against the Eagles. Thielen has been working through a low back issue all week. He is fully expected to play after practicing on a limited basis the last two days. Thielen may not be 100 percent but should be fine for his normal snaps.
New York Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson was arrested and charged with harm to a public servant/family, reckless driving, eluding police, and resisting arrest Friday morning in Florida. Anderson was arrested in Florida last offseason as well at a music festival. This one sounds a bit more serious, however, though little details are known at this point. Coming off a breakout 2017, this is the last thing Anderson needs.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (hand) was present for the start of practice Friday, and he wore red gloves on both hands for the second day in a row. However, Brady didn't participate in team drills, but he was able to make a fist with his right hand. Brady was seen at practice Thursday but was listed as not practicing. The media is making this a bigger deal than it actually is, and Brady is fully expected to play Sunday against the Jaguars in the AFC title game. He's likely just wearing gloves at practice the last few days because of the cold temperatures, although he could stick with them on Sunday in New England.
Jacksonville Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson (foot) is listed as questionable for the AFC title game against the Patriots, but he said earlier this week that he expects to play. Gipson missed practice on both Wednesday and Thursday, but he was able to practice Friday, giving him hope that he can play on Sunday. Gipson being inactive would weaken Jacksonville's elite secondary against quarterback Tom Brady and the Pats. Gipson hasn't missed a game since joining the Jaguars last season.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill is an impending free agent and is fully expected to move on from the Bengals. Beat writers Jim Owczarski and Paul Dehner put the chances of the Bengals re-signing Hill at one percent. Hill needed ankle surgery in November, ending his season, but he is expected to be fully healthy sometime this month. He had a big rookie season and scored 29 touchdowns his first three seasons, but Hill only averaged just 3.6 YPC his last three seasons, spanning 482 carries. Hill is still just 25 but is just an early-down, goal-line bruiser.
Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert is an impending free agent and the Cincinnati Enquirer puts the chances the Bengals re-sign Eifert at "10 percent." Eifert has said all options are on the table, admitting his lengthy injury history will likely cloud some things. He is recovering from a second back surgery in two years and also needed a recent knee scope. Eifert has missed 41-of-80 games in five seasons but was dominant in 2015 when healthy, proving to be a huge red-zone weapon. He is still just 27, but the body is breaking down. Eifert's free-agent case will be interesting to follow. He may have to take a one-year deal.
Ex-Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley is interested in the Cardinals' offensive coordinator job, according to Arizona Sports' Mike Jurecki . Haley, of course, was the Cardinals' OC in 2007 and 2008 and went to the Super Bowl with Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald before landing the Chiefs' head coach job in 2009. Haley still has a home in the area, but the Cardinals do not currently have a head coach. Some have mentioned Haley as an option for Arizona's head gig, but that looks like a serious long shot. Haley reportedly has a "few options" on the table but is "going to wait for the right opportunity."
Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell showed up five minutes before the walkthrough ended Saturday, Jan. 13, before the Steelers were beaten by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He and a coach were also late to report to the stadium before the game.
Philadelphia Eagles QB Nick Foles is the first quarterback in NFL history to register a passer rating of 100 or more in each of his first two career playoff starts (minimum of 30 attempts), with the first one coming during the 2013 season and the most recent being the team's Divisional Round win Saturday, Jan. 13, against the Atlanta Falcons.
New England Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer is preparing to pitch in for the AFC title game against the Jaguars with Tom Brady (hand) nursing a hand injury, although a source said Brady's hand "should be OK" for Sunday. Hoyer took all the practice repetitions in practice Thursday with Brady sitting out. It'd be a huge shock if Brady isn't under center against the Jaguars. His jammed hand isn't believed to be serious, although he probably won't be able to pick apart the Jacksonville secondary like he did to the Titans in the Divisional Round.
The Tennessee Titans interviewed Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks for their head coaching vacancy on Thursday. He led the Panthers to a seventh-place finish in total defense in 2017, including third against the run and 18th against the pass. They also ranked third in the NFL in sacks and 11th in points allowed per game. Wilks is a highly-respected coach in the league with a history of strong defenses, but he has never held a head coaching position. Tennessee's defense could use some improvements, but so can their offense, especially quarterback Marcus Mariota.