MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings have the star power to fuel a fantasy football team.
Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, T.J. Hockenson and Kirk Cousins certainly helped line some pockets this season.
The Giants? On the surface, it’s The Saquon Barkley Show.
But the NFL playoffs are not fantasy football, and credit goes to the Giants as the embodiment of the phrase, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The second Giants-Vikings game in 22 days promises to go down to the wire based on the fine line of separation in the Vikings’ 27-24 win on Christmas Eve, and the fact these two teams played more one-score games than any others in the NFL. Let’s take a deeper dive into the matchups we’ll see Sunday:
Giants pass offense vs. Vikings pass defense
The first time these teams met, Daniel Jones passed for more yards (334) than he had in any of his previous 40 games. He completed a career-high 30 passes at an impressive clip of 71.4 percent. It was a true case of the Giants’ offense melding to attack an opponent’s weaknesses. Three of his 23 pass attempts of 20-plus air yards on the season were against the Vikings.
The Vikings allowed 265.6 pass yards per game and 7.7 yards per completion, which ranked No. 31 and No. 30 respectively in the 32-team league. To get stops, they relied on interceptions and 38 sacks. Even if left tackle Andrew Thomas bottles up Danielle Hunter (10.5 sacks), Za’Darius Smith (10) will be a handful for struggling rookie right tackle Evan Neal.
A highlight of the last matchup was the jawing back-and-forth after every target between unproven receiver Isaiah Hodgins (eight catches for 89 yards and a touchdown) and future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson (interception). The shifty Richie James and deep-threat Darius Slayton round out the Giants’ unlikely receiving corps, unless there is a renewed red-zone place for the disappointing Kenny Golladay after his acrobatic touchdown catch last week. Barkley had a season-high eight catches.
Giants run offense vs. Vikings run defense
No player benefited more from the Giants sitting starters last week than Barkley, who averaged 4.4 yards per carry en route to a career-high 1,312 as he fought through a shoulder injury to lead the NFL’s No. 4-ranked rushing attack. He had a career-high 35 carries for 152 yards and a touchdown in his first game after his last week off (albeit against the lowly Texans).
The strength of the offensive line, especially the interior, is run-blocking. Thomas and left guard Nick Gates are familiar with former Giants defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, and center Jon Feliciano is familiar with his former Bills teammate Harrison Phillips. They anchor a defensive line allowing 4.5 yards per carry (tied for No. 19 in the league) and 18 rushing touchdowns this season.
The Vikings’ last six opponents all gained at least 120 rushing yards, though most of Barkley’s damage came on a 27-yard, game-tying touchdown run on a fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter. Jones, who was fifth among quarterbacks with 708 rushing yards, ran four times. Expect the zone-read keeper to be a bigger part of the game plan this time around because the edges crashed hard on handoffs to Barkley.
Vikings pass offense vs. Giants pass defense
Maybe the biggest X factor is the availability of top cornerback Adoree’ Jackson — who, if playing at close to full strength, at least gives the Giants a chance to slow down 1,809-yard receiver Jefferson. If Jackson is unavailable, then the Giants must decide whether to put next-best option Fabian Moreau on Jefferson (which didn’t work last game) or use youngsters Nick McCloud and Cor’Dale Flott with consistent double-team help. With Jackson sidelined, Jefferson totaled 12 catches for 133 yards, including a touchdown, and the screen pass that set up the game-winning kick.
If Jefferson wasn’t enough of a problem, Hockenson (13 catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns, one over defensive backs Darnay Holmes and Julian Love) reminded the Giants of problems covering tight ends for years on end. The return of safety Xavier McKinney could alleviate some of that trouble.
But the Giants need inside pass-rushers Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence to get home, especially if Minnesota center Garrett Bradbury is limited. After playing in the last matchup, right tackle Brian O’Neill is out, so expect defensive coordinator Wink Martindale to bring creative blitzes off that edge. The Vikings showed they will counter with screens.
Cousins threw for 29 touchdowns against a career-high 14 interceptions and took 46 sacks.
Vikings run offense vs. Giants run defense
Cook averaged 4.4 yards per carry on the season and tied for the fourth-most runs of 40-plus yards (three). But he was relatively quiet against the Giants — just 46 yards on 13 carries after his game-opening 18-yarder — and for most of the final six weeks. Did Alexander Mattison, who averaged a season-best 5.4 yards per carry in the finale, earn a bigger role spelling Cook?
Fullback C.J. Ham plays about a dozen snaps a game to help in short yardage. Combine him with Hockenson and newly healthy tight end Irv Smith Jr., and the Vikings could get tricky with their big formations.
The Giants allowed 144.2 rushing yards per game on the ground, which ranked No. 27 in the league. A lot of the struggles can be attributed to the season-long revolving door at inside linebacker. Another change could be on tap as veteran Jarrad Davis is in line to get elevated from the practice squad and start over rookie Micah McFadden next to Jaylon Smith.
Lawrence and Williams — the Giants’ two best run-stuffers — played 75 and 63 percent of the defensive snaps, respectively, which is relatively low by their high standards. Kayvon Thibodeaux didn’t get enough credit for the way he set the edge against the run as a rookie.
Greg Joseph’s franchise-record 61-yard field goal as time expired won the game, but he isn’t the same kind of weapon as his counterpart. Whereas Joseph made 78.8 percent of his field goals (4-for-10 from 50-plus yards) and 87 percent of his PATs, Graham Gano made 90.6 and 94.1 percent, respectively. Most impressively, he was 8-for- 9 from 50-plus. Joseph has been clutch with five game-winning kicks.
Punter Jamie Gillan has been a roller coaster in first season with the Giants. Strong leg? Yes. Soft touch? Not so much. And he had two disastrous plays — a dropped snap against the Eagles and a blocked punt against the Vikings, when long snapper Casey Kreiter tripped and allowed Josh Metellus to come through the middle.
Kene Nwangwu is one of the league’s best kick returners (26.3 yards per attempt with a touchdown). The Giants kicked six touchbacks to avoid him. The Giants didn’t get much out of their returners, but at least James has corrected his issue with no fumbles in his last eight games after three in the first half of the season.
Five of the 10 new head coaches in 2022 made the playoffs — and two first-timers will go head-to-head here.
Kevin O’Connell was the anti-Mike Zimmer. Throughout an otherwise successful eight-year run, Zimmer had a knack for losing close games in the final seconds. O’Connell’s Vikings posted the best record (11-0) in NFL history in one-score games. Combine that with a couple of blowout losses, however, and the Vikings were outscored by three points over the course of the season, which suggests they might not be as good as their record.
Daboll inherited a far-less talented team and developed former draft picks into burgeoning stars and castoffs into reliable players. He pressed all the right management buttons — going for a 2-point conversion to win the season opener, punting in overtime to capitalize on the value of a tie and so on. Though it’s his first playoff game in charge, he has coached in 30-plus playoff games as an assistant, so he is comfortable under pressure.
Just seven Giants starters (17 players overall) have playoff experience. James is the only one of the primary ball-handlers on the list as career-long Giants such as Jones, Barkley, Slayton and rookie Daniel Bellinger ready for their debuts.
For all the big-game knocks Cousins takes, he is 1-2 in the playoffs, with three touchdowns (including an overtime game-winner) and one interception. Cook and Thielen also have playoff experience. Eight of the 11 defensive starters have been there, done that.
Home-field advantage is real at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings are 8-1 this season and 42-18 (including the playoffs) since it opened. The “Skol” chant is one of the NFL’s best traditions and noise levels can be lumped in with the best advantages created by Seahawks and Chiefs fans.
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