Ben Goessling’s Vikings-Giants playoff preview and prediction: Who wins and why?

There’s been plenty of talk this week about how this is a favorable first-round matchup for the Vikings, but is it?

When: 3:30 pm Sunday, US Bank Stadium

TV, radio: Ch. 9, 100.3-FM

line: Vikings by 3½

THREE STORY LINES

  1. Playoff football returns to Minneapolis: Five years and a day after the Minneapolis Miracle, the Vikings will host their second playoff game at US Bank Stadium. They’ve played three playoff games since, but all have been on the road. After winning the NFC North for the first time since 2017 and claiming the No. 3 seed in the conference, they’ll get a chance to bring the postseason stage back to Minneapolis. This week, Giants center Nick Gates said he thought US Bank Stadium would be “a lot louder” than it was when the teams played in December. The Nebraska native said he knew from experience that Midwestern people are “too nice” for the environment to really be formidable. Gates’ comments will undoubtedly be on the minds of some Vikings fans as they head to Sunday’s game.
  2. Rematch is one of six: All six games in the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs are rematches between teams that faced each other at least once during the regular season. The Giants will come to US Bank Stadium for the second time in four weeks, after the Vikings beat them 27-24 on Dec. 24 when Greg Joseph kicked a 61-yard field goal as time expired. New York’s 445 yards in that game were its most of the season; both Justin Jefferson and TJ Hockenson posted double-digit catches and eclipsed 100 yards in the Vikings’ 11th one-score victory of the season.
  3. O’Connell gets his chance: A year ago, Kevin O’Connell was the offensive coordinator for a Rams team that won three games in the NFC playoffs on the way to a victory in Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles. He became the Vikings head coach a few days later, and he’ll be the second first-year coach in Vikings history to lead his team in a playoff game (after Dennis Green did it in 1992). O’Connell said his big takeaway from the Rams’ run last year was the fact that the team can still improve in the playoffs. He stressed the same point to a Vikings team that went 13-4 despite being outscored for the season; his team will get its chance to prove it can get to another level.

TWO KEY MATCHUPS

  1. Vikings WR Justin Jefferson vs. Giants secondary: O’Connell has called Jefferson’s 17-yard touchdown against the Giants — where he gained inside leverage against cornerback Fabian Moreau and snapped off his route in front of safety Jason Pinnock — the receiver’s best of the season. He’ll be the focal point of the Giants’ defensive plan again, with safety Xavier McKinney back from fractured fingers and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson in line to return from a knee injury. The Giants kept a safety over the top of Jefferson throughout the last game and could take a similar approach Sunday. It’s also worth watching if they deviate from the off coverage they played in December, and emulate the approach the Packers used against Jefferson, with a corner pressing him at the line of scrimmage while a safety provides help downfield.
  2. Vikings offensive line vs. Giants defensive line: The Giants blitz more frequently than any team in the NFL, and they sent extra pass rushers after Kirk Cousins ​​on 27 of his 52 dropbacks in the first meeting. They could employ extra pressure to test a Vikings offensive line that will be without right tackle Brian O’Neill, who is out for the season because of a partially torn Achilles. The Vikings might also start Chris Reed at center, given the fact Garrett Bradbury hasn’t practiced since a Dec. 17 car accident aggravated his back injury. Whether or not Bradbury starts, expect the Giants to test how the Vikings’ reconfigured line handles blitzes and stunts where all five players have to be in sync.

ONE STATE THAT MATTERS

175

The Vikings’ number of fourth-quarter and overtime points this season. That total, by far the highest in the NFL, includes 17 in the fourth quarter of their win over the Giants on Dec. 24.

THE VIKINGS WILL WIN IF…

First and foremost, their pass protection holds up. The Vikings will be tested by a formidable Giants pass rush, especially without O’Neill handling Kayvon Thibodeaux at right tackle. They will need Cousins ​​to get the ball out on time, find open receivers for him if the Giants concentrate on Jefferson and develop a running game after Dalvin Cook’s productive first quarter in the last meeting. They’ll also need Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter to pressure Daniel Jones, and keep him from beating the Vikings with his feet, while their front contains Saquon Barkley after a strong day from the Giants running back last time.

THE GIANTS WILL WIN IF…

Jones has the kind of effective day he had in the last meeting, when the Giants tested the Vikings’ greater reliance on man coverage with a steady series of crossing routes. Barkley could be a real factor on the ground and in the passing game again, and defensive line coach Andre Patterson will have his pass rush of Thibodeaux, Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence and Azeez Ojulari ready for a rematch with Patterson’s former team.

PREDICTION

There’s been plenty of talk this week about how this is a favorable first-round matchup for the Vikings, but injuries on the offensive line could make this a real challenge. The Giants showed last time they can move the ball, and they won’t be afraid to return to US Bank Stadium after a close loss last month. But with a raucous crowd cheering them on, the Vikings’ pass rush will get the better of the Giants’ offensive line and make just enough plays to help the Vikings win another close one. Vikings 24, Giants 20

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