Well-rounded of­fences face off in Min­nesota

Sunday Sports - - SPORTS - DON BREN­NAN dbren­nan@post­media.com @sun­donib

MINNEAPOLIS — The se­cret to a healthy life, they say, is in main­tain­ing a proper balance.

The suc­cess of a football team can hinge on that too.

The rea­son the New Orleans Saints have a healthy chance in the NFC divi­sional play­off against the Min­nesota Vik­ings and the most dom­i­nant de­fence in the league on Sun­day is their balance. With ex­cep­tional backs Mark In­gram and Alvin Ka­mara be­hind him, fu­ture hall of fame quar­ter­back Drew Brees can take ad­van­tage of de­fences that cheat against the run, as he did in the wild-card win over the Carolina Pan­thers — just as their balance helped the Saints be­come the No. 2-ranked of­fence (in yards) dur­ing the sea­son.

If the Saints didn’t have that run-pass duel threat, the lat­est ver­sion of the Pur­ple Peo­ple Eaters would de­vour them.

Mean­while, the Vik­ings have found balance in their lives, too. And they did so by dump­ing the most pro­lific of­fen­sive player in fran­chise his­tory.

Un­wanted in Min­nesota, Adrian Peter­son signed with the Saints, who de­ter­mined af­ter Week 4 that the 12thlead­ing rusher in NFL his­tory wasn’t as ef­fec­tive as the In­gram-Ka­mara tag team.

Peter­son moved on to the Ari­zona Car­di­nals, but his sea­son was cut short by a neck in­jury. He’ll be 33 in March, but with an­other year on his deal, Peter­son will likely try to move up that all-time rush­ing chart.

“I think now there’s more of a sense of balance on of­fence,” Vik­ings tight end Kyle Ru­dolph said when asked why, other than the de­fence, the team is bet­ter off with­out Peter­son. “Ev­ery­one knew our iden­tity was to run the football, as it should have been. When you have the best run­ning back ar­guably of all-time, and def­i­nitely in our game right now, you have to give him the ball. If you don’t give him the ball, you’re stupid.

“That made us one-di­men­sional. Now, you look at our of­fence ... we have to run the ball, don’t get me wrong. It’s im­por­tant to run the football. But you don’t know what we’re go­ing to do be­cause we have play­mak­ers all over, and we can spread it around.”

Two of those play­mak­ers, re­ceivers Adam Thie­len and Ste­fan Diggs, should keep the Saints’ 10th-ranked de­fence on its toes Sun­day. The Vik­ings had a play­maker to re­place Peter­son, but rookie Dalvin Cook — who had 22 car­ries for 127 yards in his de­but — suf­fered a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury in Game 4.

In his ab­sence, the Vik­ings have leaned on their own tag team — Latavius Mur­ray and Jer­ick McKin­non. On the sea­son, Min­nesota’s rush­ing num­bers are sec­ond-worst in the league. But down the stretch, Mur­ray and McKin­non were es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive, with Mur­ray serv­ing as the work­horse.

Against the sus­pect Saints run de­fence, Mur­ray and McKin­non could be just as dam­ag­ing as In­gram and Ka­mara.

“We’re not think­ing about that,” Mur­ray said. “We know they're two good play­ers and they've done some re­ally good things this year. They had a great sea­son, both of them.

“For me and Jer­ick, we’re look­ing for­ward to the chal­lenge (of Sun­day). We’re look­ing for­ward to show­ing the world what we can do. But we don’t want to make it about them. We want to con­tinue do­ing what we’ve been do­ing. That’s try­ing to be big time play­ers in this of­fence. That’s what’s go­ing to help us.”

That’s what could help the Vik­ings be­come the first team in his­tory to play for a Su­per Bowl in it’s own sta­dium. Never mind that they still have to get past the divi­sional round for only the sec­ond time since 2000, Vik­ings play­ing in the Big Game is all the talk in these parts — in­clud­ing from the Vik­ings them­selves.

“We’ve been very out­spo­ken, since we found out we’re hav­ing then Su­per Bowl here ... we wanted to be the first team to play in our own Su­per Bowl,” Ru­dolph said. “I don’t think that adds any more pres­sure than we add on our­selves ev­ery year, that we want to get to the Su­per Bowl.

“But I’ve said it be­fore, if there’s any fan base that de­serves to see their team in their own sta­dium for the Su­per Bowl, it’s ours.”

Home teams con­tin­ued their dom­i­nance in the divi­sional round when the Philadel­phia Ea­gles de­feat the Atlanta Fal­cons on Satur­day.

“The very sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion would be the home team earned that po­si­tion and they earned it play­ing good football,” Saints coach Sean Pay­ton the­o­rized on Fri­day’s con­fer­ence call. “You come off a bye and the other team just played. Look, you do your stud­ies, 10 years back, 15 years back, and the kid is to be play­ing good football at this time of the year. And they (Vik­ings) are.”

But while the at­mos­phere at U.S. Bank Sta­dium will very much work in the Vik­ings’ favour, the NFC cham­pi­onship game will be played in Philadel­phia on Jan. 21 no mat­ter what team has bet­ter balance Sun­day in Minneapolis.

AP

Wide re­ceiver Adam Thie­len’s play­mak­ing abil­ity is one rea­son the Min­nesota Vik­ings don’t miss Adrian Peter­son.

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