By DAVE CAMPBELL
AP Pro Football Writer
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum throws a pass during warmups in Eden Prairie, Minn., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, in preparation for Sunday's NFL playoff football game against the New Orleans Saints in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
At left, in a Dec. 23, 2017, file photo, Minnesota Vikings' Case Keenum throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, in Green Bay, Wis. At right, in a Dec. 24, 2017, file photo, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) drops back to pass in the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, in New Orleans. The Saints and Vikiungs plays in a divisional playoff game on Sunday, Jan. 14 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)
In this Sept. 21, 2014, file photo, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, left, and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton talk before an NFL football game, in New Orleans. The Saints and Vikings play in a divisional playoff game on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bill Haber, File)
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Drew Brees will lead the New Orleans offense onto the field at Minnesota and commence the 13th postseason game of his stellar career, already armed with seven such victories and one Super Bowl ring for the Saints.
''I prepare for every game as if it's that magnitude,'' Brees said.
''When you're in games of that magnitude, it's as if you've been there and done it many times before, even if it was just in your mind.''
For Case Keenum, it's truly all in his mind.
His first start in the NFL playoffs will come when the Vikings kick off their divisional round game on Sunday.
''I'm going to play like I know how to play. I don't have to be anybody but myself. Not more conservative or less conservative. Either way, I'm going to be me,'' said Keenum, whose successful takeover for the injured Sam Bradford helped lead the Vikings (13-3) to their best record in 19 years. ''That's all I have to be. I've got a great squad in this room.''
Solely measuring quarterback experience and accomplishment, the Saints have a clear advantage over the Vikings in this divisional round game to help determine the matchup in the NFC championship game. Keenum, though, has been overcoming the odds all season, let alone his career .
''I always root for guys like that. Kind of the undersized guy that is coming out and nobody wants to give him any credit and always plays with a chip on his shoulder,'' Brees said.
Though he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the second round in 2001 out of Purdue, with Keenum going undrafted out of Houston and needing the Texans practice squad to get his career going in 2012, Brees can relate. He's shorter than the NFL standard for their position, too. Oh, and they're both from Texas.
Brees added another highlight last week, with 376 passing yards to help the Saints (12-5) advance with a 31-26 victory over Carolina while the Vikings had a bye.
''Just a guy that I really admire in how he moves the ball down the field and how he operates, what kind of leader he is,'' Keenum said.
''I read his book a long time ago. I think he's someone to learn from. I try to watch all of the really good quarterbacks in the offseason and take little things to try to work on my game.''
Here are some other angles to follow with the game:
SLOWED UP: The Pro Bowl pair of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara had the least productive combined performance for the Saints against Carolina, with just 68 total yards from scrimmage. They each had more than 1,500 total yards in 2017.
The Panthers brought one safety closer to the line of the scrimmage to spy on the running back, and it worked.
''This league is a copy-cat league so I wouldn't be surprised if Minnesota did it,'' Kamara said, expressing no concern about the strategy by pointing to Brees, whose passing yardage total against the Panthers was his second-highest of the season.
The Vikings, led by the speed of linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, have held several pass-catching running backs to minimal production this season.
LINE ITEM: The Saints will be without starting left guard Andrus Peat, a versatile former first-round draft choice who also filled in for Terron Armstead at left tackle this season when he was injured. Peat broke his fibula against the Panthers.
Senio Kelemete, who has filled in at both guard spots and right tackle this season, is slated to start for Peat. Armstead, meanwhile, said he's never been close to 100 percent healthy this season.
''But it doesn't matter,'' Armstead said. ''I'm willing and able to put my body on the line for an opportunity to play again next week.''
ZONED OUT: New Orleans defensive coordinator Dennis Allen called for a relatively zone-heavy scheme in the opener, and rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore recalled feeling ''confused about everything'' in his NFL debut other than the man-to-man coverage the Saints have been more inclined to let Lattimore play on top opposing receivers. He had five interceptions and was picked for the Pro Bowl.
''That was something that we felt like in that game was going to give us a chance to win the game, and obviously we didn't play as well as we needed to,'' Allen said of Minnesota's 29-19 victory fueled by a career-best 143.0 passer rating for Bradford . ''Obviously, we've looked at that game and how we've changed and how we've evolved as a defense.''
SUPER BOWL ENVY: New Orleans' bid for the Super Bowl this season and was considered a favorite given the city is celebrating its 300th anniversary and has long been a popular host for the NFL's marquee event. But Minnesota's bid, combining its new stadium and winter carnival approach to related festivities, won out.
Now the Vikings have an opportunity to become the first team to play a Super Bowl on home turf, a feat the Saints would be happy to deny.
''If we want to add a little underlying story to us trying to win this game, it would be nice to be able to do that,'' Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said.
''We've always talked about, `We want to start the season at Minnesota. We want to end the season in Minnesota,' and for us that means playing in the Super Bowl.''
SITE MAP: The Saints are 1-6 in their history in the playoffs on the road, including 1-4 under coach Sean Payton. Their first and only such win came after the 2013 season, when they edged the Eagles in a wild-card round game in Philadelphia before losing the following week at Seattle.
One of those losses came in the 2000 divisional round at Minnesota. The Vikings are 13-8 in home playoff games in their history, including 6-4 indoors.
The Seattle Seahawks hired Brian Schottenheimer as their new offensive coordinator Tuesday. Mike Solari was also named the new offensive line coach. Schottenheimer most recently served as the Colts quarterbacks coach the last two seasons, but he previously was an offensive coordinator with the Jets from 2006-2011, with the St. Louis Rams from 2012-2014 and with the University of Georgia in 2015. Solari spent the last two yearse as the offensive line coach for the Giants. Both Schottenheimer and Solari will have their hands full, mainly fixing the offensive line and getting something out of what was a terrible running game the last two years. Russell Wilson remains one of the best and most athletic quarterbacks in the league, but these new additions don't really figure to benefit him all that much.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs has certainly seen an increase in popularity this week. After making national news by scoring the game-winning 61-yard touchdown last week against the Saints, Diggs will look to keep the good times rolling against the Eagles. The Eagles defense has allowed the 14th most fantasy points to opposing receivers this season, including allowing eight touchdowns to receivers over the Eagles last six games played. Diggs finished the regular season with eight touchdowns and is coming off of an impressive six-catch, 137-yard performance. Diggs should see plenty of targets and will be a top-4 fantasy play at receiver for the final four of the NFL playoffs.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen has had a career season with 91 receptions and 1,276 yards, including 74 receiving yards last week in the Vikings wild win against the Saints. But Thielen has only four touchdowns this season and has not caught a touchdown since December 10th. He has been a go-to receiver for quarterback Case Keenum but when the Vikings get in the red zone Thielen serves more as a decoy than a weapon. This week he will take on an Eagles defense that has allowed the 14th most fantasy points to opposing receivers this season. The Eagles have been tough on the run this season but can be beat in the secondary. Thielen is an excellent route runner and should have no issue getting open often this weekend. He may not find the end zone but Thielen is a top-4 play at receiver in fantasy for this weekend.
Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon will look to make it two straight playoff games with a touchdown when the Vikings take on the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. McKinnon punched in a 14-yard score last week against the Saints but will go up against an Eagles defense that has allowed the second fewest fantasy points to opposing backs this season. McKinnon is the de facto backup to Latavius Murray but McKinnon presents more athletic value in the passing game. While the Eagles will try and shut down the Vikings running game, McKinnon could see some opportunities to make some plays in the screen game. The Eagles have allowed only three rushing touchdowns since Week 4 of the regular season which means the Vikings will have to get creative in the red zone. McKinnon's name is flying under the radar in preparation for championship weekend and could certainly provide some fantasy value at a cheap price.
Minnesota Vikings running back Latavius Murray will have a tough matchup Sunday against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. It will be tough sledding against a defensive unit that has allowed the second fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs this season. Up until the Cowboys Ezekiell Elliott's 103 yards in Week 17, the Eagles had not allowed a single 100-yard runner all season. Murray has become a reliable force in the red zone, scoring eight rushing touchdowns in the regular season and punching in for another score last week in the playoffs against the Saints. But the Eagles have allowed only three rushing touchdowns since Week 4, making this one of the stingiest match ups Murray will see all season. Murray could struggle to post a solid fantasy stat-line and will be a touchdown-dependent option this championship weekend.
Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce (concussion) will not participate in the Pro Bowl due to a concussion he suffered in the playoffs. Tennessee Titans TE Delanie Walker has been named as Kelce's replacement.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum will head into the NFC Championship game against the Eagles with his confidence at an all-time high. Keenum was playing solid football last week against the Saints but it was in the final moments where he really shined in helping create the Minnesota Miracle. He has a career-high 22 touchdown passes during the regular season but will go up against an elite Eagles defense one more stepping stone away from the Super Bowl. The Eagles have allowed the 11th fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks this season with 19 interceptions during the regular season. The unit has played extremely well of late, holding opponents to less than 227 passing yards in nine of their last 10 games, including the playoffs. Keenum will have to protect the football and could be in line for a less than stellar fantasy stat line. Nonetheless, he will be the second best quarterback option (behind the Patriots' Tom Brady) in fantasy heading towards championship weekend.
Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is expected to return in 2018 with full confidence from head coach Dan Quinn and his staff. The Falcons took a notable step back in 2017 with Sarkisian in his first full year as the coordinator after the departure of Kyle Shanahan. Quarterback Matt Ryan's numbers were expected to disappoint after his 2016 MVP season, and Atlanta's offense as a whole never really reached its full potential. With Sarkisian likely sticking around, it may be good news for the continuity of the unit, especially since they should be getting most of their weapons back. It wouldn't hurt to upgrade at the receiver position, though.
Philadelphia Eagles QB Nick Foles has thrown just one touchdown compared to two interceptions in five games played in Philadelphia this season. Meanwhile, he has thrown four touchdowns and zero interceptions in two road contests. The Eagles face the Minnesota Vikings in Philadelphia in the NFC Championship this weekend.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees says he has no plans to test the market, and that he hopes to re-sign with the Saints before the start of the new league year. "I'm not in the mood to make anything secretive," Brees said. "It's the same way I felt two days ago. It's the same way I felt 12 years ago. That is that I'll be here as long as they'll have me, hopefully." Brees, who turned 39 on Monday, cannot be franchise tagged, giving him a little leverage even if he insists he does not want to test the market. Brees' main goal could be some guaranteed money for 2019.
Seattle Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner (hamstring) will not participate in the 2018 Pro Bowl due to a hamstring injury. Wagner has been dealing with the ailment since late in the season and will be replaced on the Pro Bowl roster by Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Kwon Alexander.
Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones (ankle) will not participate in the 2018 Pro Bowl due to his nagging ankle injury. Green Bay Packers WR Davante Adams will take Jones' place in the Pro Bowl.
The Arizona Cardinals are putting in second interview requests for their head coach position today. Among those expected to get a call are Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak and Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. With so much still in flux, it is still uncertain what the fantasy values of the various Cardinals players will be following this process. Keep an eye on who gets the job and how it will affect players such as running back David Johnson and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette was involved in a minor car accident Tuesday when his car was rear ended. Fournette was fine and was able to drive home after the accident. Of greater concern for Fournette's availability in the AFC title game against the Patriots is the ankle that he aggravated in the Divisional Round against the Steelers. Fournette's ankle has bothered him at times this season, but he was able to return against the Steelers and carried the Jaguars offense with three touchdowns. Fournette may be somewhat limited in what he can do against the Pats, but rest assured that he'll be the focal point of the offense yet again as they try to pull a second straight huge upset. T.J. Yeldon filled in admirably when Fournette left the game last weekend, and he figures to have a big role as well, even if Fournette is playing.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril (neck) intends to play again in 2018 despite missing most of the 2017 season with a career-threatening neck ailment. "Right now it's all about recovery. I had surgery. I'm in the process of recovering. It's a long process, a long journey. When I get to the end of that, then I'll figure out what's next," Avril said. Avril was injured in Week 4 and missed the rest of the season, and head coach Pete Carroll even said it would be tough for Avril to ever play again. It remains to be seen how effective Avril can be after his neck injury in 2017, but if he can return to anywhere close to his pre-injury form, his return will be a big boost to a Seattle defense that fell off in 2017, mainly due to injuries.
The Cleveland Browns are interviewing former New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo for their vacant offensive coordinator position on Tuesday. McAdoo's tenure with the Giants didn't end well as he went 2-10 this past season and caught fire for benching longtime starting quarterback Eli Manning. Despite the rough season, McAdoo has had plenty of success as a play-caller in the NFL, leading the Giants to the sixth-most points in the league in 2015 when he was their offensive coordinator. McAdoo, along with former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey and former Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan have all been linked to the job opening.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was asked on his radio show on Tuesday whether he wanted offensive coordinator Todd Haley back in 2018. Roethlisberger responded by saying, "The least amount of change the better. We don't want to have big changes because we're right there, we're on the cusp...We feel we have some great things going for us." Rumors of a fracture between Haley and Roethlisberger popped up during the season but it is apparent those issues were overblown. Roethlisberger went on to state, "I think its perceived as a bigger deal than it was." Haley is not under contract for the 2018 season but the Steelers could look to bring him back with the support of Roethlisberger.
New Orleans Saints LB Hau'oli Kikaha (ankle) proclaimed himself 'ready right now' when asked by reporters Tuesday, Jan. 16, whether or not he would be ready for OTAs.
Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson remains confident that quarterback Marcus Mariota is the right guy for the gig, and Robinson isn't too worried that the team will have yet another head coach guiding the offense in 2018. "Marcus is a pretty resilient guy. He's a very mentally tough guy," Robinson said of Mariota. "He takes a lot from the standpoint of ownership in things. I have zero concern in Marcus being able to adapt and learn, and do what's best to get the offense going." Mariota will be playing for his third NFL coach after being drafted in 2015. It was a disappointing year for the Hawaiin in 2017, as he threw for just 3,232 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions after throwing for 3,426 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2016. Injuries slowed Mariota down again, but he has plenty of pieces around him in the offense to be successful. The right coaching staff may be able to get more out of him, but fantasy owners probably won't want any part of Mariota, definitely not as a QB1.
New Orleans Saints TE Coby Fleener is set to count $8 million against the cap with a $6.3 million salary in 2018, making it highly unlikely he will stay with the team unless he agrees to a pay cut on the five-year, $36 million contract he signed in 2016. The Saints choose to release him, they would still be charged $4.8 million in dead money.