The Minnesota Vikings will host the first playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium since 2017 when they host the New York Giants in a Wild Card matchup on Sunday afternoon.
The two teams battled in an instant classic on Christmas Eve when Greg Joseph booted a 61-yard field goal to give the Vikings a 27-24 victory.
Not much has changed since then, but the Giants have become darlings for national media members looking for an upset and bettors who, according to The Action Network, have placed 54 percent of the bets and over 90 percent of the cash on New York.
The Vikings come into Sunday’s game as three-point favorites, however, and will be looking for their first playoff win since 2019. Playoff football is always unpredictable, but here are five things you can count on.
The Giants bringing the blitz
The name Wink Martindale might bring back memories of game shows like “Gambit” and “Tic-Tac-Dough,” but the football version’s favorite game might be “NFL Blitz.”
According to Pro Football Reference, the Giants defensive coordinator yielded the highest blitz rate in the NFL at 39.7 percent. In the Week 16 meeting with the Vikings, Martindale blitzed Kirk Cousins at a staggering rate of 51.9 percent.
Despite the constant pressure, one of the keys of the previous meeting was Cousins’s ability to handle the blitz. Cousins completed 15-of-24 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns on 27 dropbacks against the blitz, but that hasn’t been the norm this season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins ranks 34th among qualifying quarterbacks with an 85.9 passer rating against the blitz. After Brian O’Neill suffered a partially torn Achilles tendon in that game, Cousins will have an even stiffer challenge against the blitz.
Long story short? The Giants are coming and it will be on Cousins and the offensive line to handle it.
The return of Garrett Bradbury
If we went back to August and told you that Vikings fans were on pins and needles over Bradbury’s availability for a playoff game, you would have thought we were crazy. But here we are agonizing over Bradbury’s back injury.
The good news for the Vikings is that Bradbury is expected to return after missing the past month with the injury. Kevin O’Connell said during Friday’s press conference that Bradbury is expected to start against the Giants, but it remains to be seen how effective he will be in his first game action since Dec. 4 against the New York Jets.
The bad news is that the rest of the offensive line appears to be unsettled. The Vikings are hoping to get Blake Brandel back from a knee injury but the reserve has allowed 13 pressures – and seven sacks – in six games this season.
On an offensive line that has watched Ed Ingram lead all offensive linemen with 58 pressures allowed during the regular season and Ezra Cleveland rank third with 53 pressures allowed, the offensive line is a major focal point heading into Sunday’s game.
‘All hands on deck’
While the Vikings have battled for position, they’ve had their playoff spot wrapped up for weeks. Minnesota clinched the NFC North on Dec. 17, which not only gave them an automatic playoff berth but a chance to rest some of their starters down the stretch.
The Vikings have since rotated some starters in an effort to manage their workload. The plan appears to have worked as Cameron Dantzler (ankle/personal), Harrison Smith (knee) and Kene Nwangwu (illness) are the only players listed as questionable on the final injury report.
The Giants have also taken the opportunity to get healthy, resting their starters in their season finale against Philadelphia. As a result, every player on the injury report practiced in full on Friday including cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and safety Xavier McKinney, who did not play in the previous meeting with the Vikings.
This seems like a small thing, but it’s a different approach compared to when Adam Thielen nearly slashed his Achilles during a practice in the week leading up to a playoff game in 2019. With all hands on deck, both teams will be at their best when they take the field.
A raucous environment at U.S. Bank Stadium
Remember the scene in Anchorman when Ron Burgundy cussed out San Diego on live television? Well, after Nick Gates downplayed the noise at U.S. Bank Stadium, Vikings fans may be like the man at the bar screaming “Nobody talks about my city that way!”
The Giants offensive lineman told reporters he wasn’t that impressed with the noise level at U.S. Bank Stadium and that the fans were “too nice” in the previous meeting.
“Surprised. Actually, I thought it would be a lot louder,” Gates said this week. “I thought especially when our offense is out there they would be a lot louder out there. But you know, they’re Midwest people. They’re too nice. I can say it because I went to Nebraska. I went to Nebraska. I include myself in that one.”
Since that comment, O’Connell went on to defend the U.S. Bank Stadium atmosphere during his press conference and Christian Darrisaw took to Twitter to implore Vikings fans to be loud on Sunday.
There’s a good chance that Gates’s comments will be plastered on the 8,160 square-foot scoreboards when the Giants take the field on Sunday. There’s an even better chance that it will unleash the fury of a building that hit 120 decibels during the Minneapolis Miracle, which took place five years ago on Friday.
The Vikings’ first playoff win since 2019
Everywhere you look, a national pundit is picking the Giants over the Vikings. In addition to labeling the Vikings as frauds, the Giants and their supporters have created a list of things that went wrong that could be long enough to fill a Mike Zimmer PowerPoint presentation.
Although Giants fans will point to a Daniel Bellinger fumble, a Daniel Jones interception, a blocked punt by Josh Metellus, and a key drop by Richie James, they forget that the Vikings led for most of the game and racked up nearly 400 yards of total offense.
There are definitely flaws with this team, such as their defense and Greg Joseph’s Russian Roulette approach to extra points, but they’re in a better spot than a team that’s gone 2-5-1 in their last eight games after starting the season at 7-2.
The Vikings are the better team and they should show it with a win on Sunday.
Prediction: Vikings 26, Giants 23