Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)
The Vikings qualified for the post-season, but they finished the season just 1-4 against fellow playoff qualifiers, tied with the Bills for worst among playoff qualifiers. Their one win came against an Eagles team that only qualified because they play in the NFC East, while their losses came against the Packers twice, the Seahawks, and even the Matt Moore led Chiefs, back when Mahomes was sidelined with a knee injury. Making this even more concerning is Kirk Cousins’ well-documented struggles in big games. Cousins’ 7-15 record in primetime games (6-15-1 ATS) is well known, but his record in all games against teams with a winning record is even worse.
Dating back to his first year as a starter in 2015, in games against teams entering with a winning record, excluding any games in week 3 or earlier when a team’s record might not mean much, Cousins’ teams are just 7-21, including just 3-10 since joining the Vikings. His ATS record of 10-17-1 ATS isn’t horrendous, but he’s just 3-9-1 ATS since joining the Vikings. There isn’t much to go off in terms of Cousins’ post-season history, as this is just his 2nd career playoff start, but it’s not a stretch to say his struggles against tough opponents will probably extend into the post-season and his lack of post-season experience could also work against him, facing a quarterback/head coach duo with 14 career playoff starts together in Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
In addition to having significant post-season experience, the Saints are also playing about as well as any team in the league right now. Since Drew Brees’ return from injury in week 8, the Saints rank 3rd in first down rate at 42.03% and 2nd in first down rate differential at +6.61. Their offense has been even better in recent weeks, with a 44.62% first down rate in their past 6 games and a 46.59% first down rate in their past 4 games, both best in the NFL over that stretch.
It might seem improbable that the Saints can continue that rate going forward, but the Saints had a 43.48% first down rate last season in Brees’ 15 starts and at one point had a 45.69% first down rate through 11 games before slowing down late in the season, possibly due to an aging Drew Brees getting tired at the end of a 16-game season. This season, Brees’ injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as the missed time seems to have him fresher at the end of the season. Now fully past the injury, Brees seems to be heating up just in time for the playoffs.
The Saints’ defense finished just 15th in first down rate allowed at 35.04% and they lost Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, pair of key defensive linemen, with injury late in the season, but the Saints have more than enough on offense to compensate and they still have plenty of talent on defense. This line is pretty high at New Orleans -7.5, so there isn’t quite enough here to confidently bet on the Saints, especially since a Kirk Cousins backdoor cover seems somewhat likely, but New Orleans should be the right side.
New Orleans Saints 34 Minnesota Vikings 24
Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7.5