(CBS Minnesota) -- The Minnesota Vikings return to the playoffs after missing out last season. As the sixth seed in the NFC, they travel to New Orleans to face the Saints, the last team they beat in the postseason. It will also be their first playoff game under Kirk Cousins, who was brought in for precisely these sorts of moments.
The Saints and Vikings haven't faced each other since that fateful day almost two years ago, when Stefon Diggs caught a last-minute sideline pass that he turned into six points and a trip to the conference championship. The Vikings would go on to lose to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints, after that untimely exit, made it to the NFC Championship last year, only to have their hearts broken again, this time by the Los Angeles Rams. They'll be seeking a different result this year.
But SportsLine's senior NFL analyst Larry Hartstein doesn't necessarily see it in the cards. "The Saints coming off those two heartbreaking playoff exits, and two years ago it was the Minneapolis miracle. And that's the only time in the last six meetings against Minnesota that they haven't covered. So that might favor the Saints. But then you look at Mike Zimmer, 27-9 against the spread coming off a loss, 43-19 against the spread when facing a non-division foe, teams that are not that familiar with his system. And now they're getting over a touchdown in New Orleans, it's pretty tempting."
The Saints will be looking to leverage one of the NFL's leading passing attacks against a suspect Vikings pass defense. Drew Brees remains an elite passer at the age of 40, averaging 270.8 yards per game in a season that saw him miss five games after surgery on his throwing hand. It hasn't affected his production at all. In his nine games since returning, Brees has tossed 25 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. He's completing 74.3 percent of his passes on the season.
His leading target is Michael Thomas, the NFL's leading receiver, by a lot. Thomas has 149 receptions for 1,725 yards, which is 45 more receptions and 331 yards more than the second-place receiver in each category. "On paper [the Saints pass offense against the Vikings secondary] does look like a mismatch," in Hartstein's view, "with Michael Thomas catching a million passes and Drew Brees barely missing any throws all the last six weeks, 34 points a game in five of those six games, at least 34 points."
But there's more to this matchup. "That Minnesota secondary, much maligned all year, has played well down the stretch. [In] the last six games, no 300-yard passers, only five touchdowns allowed. They've gone to a rotation with their corners, playing a lot more technically sound."
Will they shutdown Brees? Probably not. He's the hottest quarterback in the NFL right now, with the hottest receiver as his main target. However, as Hartstein sees it, "if they can just contain him and make him work a little bit harder, get some pressure in the pocket, they can keep this close."
They'll need some production on offense. Dalvin Cook was one of the NFL's most productive backs for the first half of the season, piling up five 100-yard games. His production has since dropped off some, though he ended the regular season with 1,135 rushing yards and 53 receptions for another 519 yards. Injuries kept him out of the final two regular-season games, though he claims to feel "refreshed."
Hartstein sees Cook as the Vikings' X-factor. "This guy has 1,654 yards from scrimmage. The key to their whole offense, he sets up the play-action for Kirk Cousins. If he's healthy and running well against a Saints team that's going to be missing [Sheldon] Rankins and [Marcus] Davenport up front, they can have some success and Kirk Cousins will be comfortable in the pocket."
In the Vikings' Week 16 matchup with the Green Bay Packers, Cousins put up a pedestrian stat line (16-31, 122 yards) with Cook out of the lineup. In previous weeks, even when Cook was contained, Cousins enjoyed much more success passing.
The Vikings play the Saints Sunday @ 12:05 CT.
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