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Vikings upset Saints in NFC wild-card OT nailbiter

For the second time in three seasons, the Vikings have sent the Saints into the offseason. Set up by a huge Kirk Cousins connection to Adam Thielen, the Vikings defeated the Saints, 26-20, in overtime when Cousins clutched up again and hit Kyle Rudolph for the game-winning touchdown Sunday afternoon in an NFC Wild Card Game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Here's what we learned as the Vikings move on to face the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Round, while the Saints head home after an NFC South title and Super Bowl aspirations fallen short once more.

  1. This game was won by Minnesota's defense. The unit was the Vikings' best hope on paper against a team that hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in two years, and true to form, Dalvin Cook finished under 100 Sunday. That didn't matter all that much, though, because the Vikings flummoxed the Saints' offense for the majority of the game, holding New Orleans to three points after an opening-drive fumble and rebounding from an early touchdown march to buy the Vikings' offense time to work its way back into the game. They did so with pressure, moving Everson Griffen from the edge to a 3 technique, where he gave both Saints guards fits while pursuing Drew Brees. Danielle Hunter was his usual problem-causing self, forcing a Brees fumble late to keep the Saints from going ahead in the fourth quarter, and he combined with Griffen to record three sacks. Even after they shifted to playing soft coverage late to prevent a game-winning touchdown and instead allow the Saints to send it to overtime, they're still the reason the Vikings even had a chance in this one. The pressure achieved by Minnesota's defensive front took some of the responsibility off the shoulders of the Vikings' defensive backfield, which combined to keep this one close enough for Minnesota's offense to land the knockout punch.
  1. In the end, the Vikings didn't need their defense because their fully guaranteed quarterback was there to lead them to the biggest victory of his career. Yes, that's right: Kirk Cousins can win a big game. Cousins wasn't electric for much of the game, but also didn't commit any crucial mistakes (his career in a nutshell, really), engineering a touchdown drive to take a 13-10 lead into the half and avoiding significant errors in the second half to keep the Saints from completing the comeback. By the time overtime arrived with Minnesota's first possession, Cousins was ready to attack. Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski effectively balanced the run and play-action pass, culminating in a dime from Cousins to Adam Thielen, who made a fantastic catch at the goal line to set up the game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph. That throw, similar to many he's completed to Thielen and Stefon Diggs in their time together, will be played endlessly when it comes to Cousins highlight reels.

"Kirk can't win big games, apparently," Rudolph told FOX's Chris Myers immediately afterward. "I think we proved that wrong today."

  1. The Saints have a quarterback to thank for their chance to even push this one to overtime, but it's not solely Brees. Swiss Army knife Taysom Hill pulled out his skeleton key attachment to unlock New Orleans' offense, doing a little bit of everything (per usual), starting with a 50-yard heave to Deonte Harris to set up the Saints' first touchdown. He caught a touchdown pass in the second half to cut Minnesota's lead to three and give New Orleans life, and rumbled down the sideline, breaking an Anthony Harris tackle attempt to put the Saints deep in Vikings territory. A Brees fumble ended that drive, though, and while the Saints have Hill to thank for helping them climb back into the game, they didn't do enough to win.

It was a surprising development, considering this New Orleans team was about as well-balanced as its been in the last few years. Brees finished with a respectable line that included a 90.4 passer rating, but a lack of production on the ground (42 yards between Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray) forced the Saints to rely on the pass. When they continued on such a path late, it resulted in a fumble and a false start with 21 seconds left all but eliminated their chances of scoring a game-winning touchdown. Then they were forced to watch their season end from the sideline, helpless prisoners bound to a narrow stretch of unplayable turf and unable to do anything but wish they'd had another possession or two back. Perhaps they'd relied on Hill a little too much and lost their rhythm. They'll have a whole offseason to determine if that was the case.

  1. Minnesota's offense was an exercise in the ebb and flow of a unit with a stellar back whose talents weren't maximized by those in charge of directing him. For every excellent Cook run between the tackles -- including his fantastic cutback off a zone split for a touchdown -- there were two frustrating attempts to the perimeter. Stefanski too often chose to try to win the edge with stretch runs and tosses, and while Cook's presence helped increase the effectiveness of the play-action pass, it almost sank the Vikings' ship. Late perimeter runs gained very little, keeping the Vikings from being able to ice the win and eventually allowing New Orleans to tie the game. Credit Stefanski for learning from trying to get too cute with red zone calls on earlier possessions, keeping it in the hands of Cook inside the tackles on a later visit that produced the aforementioned touchdown. And he deserves praise for his sequence of play calls to get Minnesota down to the goal line. But it's difficult to see this offense, which reverted to a fruitless goal-line toss on second down before winning the fade to Rudolph, succeeding in the NFC Divisional Round with a similar approach.
  1. Nearly a year after a missed pass interference all but cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl, New Orleans fans left the Superdome again wondering why contact on a decisive pass wasn't reviewed. Rudolph's touchdown earned on a goal-line fade to the back corner of the end zone included contact that could be perceived as a push-off. Officials declined to review the play, allowing the touchdown -- and Minnesota's stunning victory -- to stand. That moment will resonate in the minds of those wearing black and gold, but these Saints had their chances to win this game and didn't capitalize. Not scoring a touchdown early and taking far too long to find an answer to Minnesota's relentless pressure (and sideline-to-sideline pursuit of Saints ball carriers) is what ultimately did these Saints in. That late Brees fumble will be replayed over and over again inside the mind of the quarterback and the hundreds of thousands who wear his No. 9 jersey. That's the difference in the playoffs.
  1. The Vikings can enjoy this big win for a little under 24 hours before beginning preparation for an even greater challenge in the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers. If Minnesota's defense plays more like it did in the first three quarters and less like it did in the fourth, the Vikings should have a decent chance. They'll have to find a way to move the ball effectively, of course, starting with a healthier dose of Cook and Alexander Mattison. San Francisco's rushing defense was middle-of-the-pack in the regular season, and the 49ers have suffered a variety of injuries up front, possibly opening room for Cook to work. One thing is certain: They can't waste possessions testing the perimeter for little to no gain. This game will have to be won with ball control and another strong defensive outing, especially from the secondary against a deeper receiving corps.
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