Romilly Evans is backing Drew Brees, a steady old hand in play-off country, to come up trumps for New Orleans on the intimidating road to Minnesota
"Take New Orleans with confidence, within the safety net of some generous handicap lines."
New Orleans Saints @ Minnesota Vikings
Start-time: Sunday, 21:40
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
Expect Saints not Sinners with an improving defensive line
They say you should never let a fleeting hullabaloo divert you from the enduring issues of debate. It's a similar story with Case Keenum who, while seldom prone to controversy himself, has been making a big noise at QB for Minnesota this season. However, questions remain. Chiefly, is this third-string QB just a sheep in a wolf's fur, ripe for being unmasked in the exposed plains of play-off country where no-one can hide?
After a signature slothful start to the season - and injuries to the preferred Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford - it was widely expected that Keenum would trip over his laces under center and lead Minnesota to the bottom rung of the NFC North. What transpired, of course, was a pauper-to-prince metamorphosis, a 13-3 regular-season record, and number two seeding in the NFC with a first-round bye to match. Can Keenum extend the trend against New Orleans?
Well, in the hope of providing more answers than questions, no. While his play has been impressive, he has been helped out by a staunch offensive line, not to mention a star-studded D which keeps putting him back on the park and in good field position. And while these two sides met in Week 1 (with the Vikings prevailing 29-19 over the Saints) that was when Bradford was at the helm and Dalvin Cook led the rushing show. Neither playmaker is on hand this time, and matters are accordingly worse for Minny as a result.
Granted, New Orleans' defense is no great shakes. However, as they demonstrated against Carolina, their corners can bring the heat and press coverage, making it tougher for Keenum to hit his marks through closing pockets and narrowing windows. The aggregation of these slimmer pickings will only make things tougher for a man out of his depth, playing in front of a raucous packed house, amid the national spotlight (the weekend's primetime fixture), and with a career contract on the line before his "show me the money" move away from Minneapolis next year. In short: no pressure, Case.
While Keenum's big-match composure has yet to be tested, his opposite number in Drew Brees has shown it in spades over the years, and did so again last week when the Panthers shut down the Saints' running game, asking Brees to win it on his own terms. He did, striking Ted Ginn for 80 yards for the game's opening touchdown.
Whereas the Saints of old aired it out, the 2017/18 Saints have evolved into a run-first, grind-you-down team. The thunder and lightning tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have run most teams ragged this term, which was why Carolina brought their five-man defensive front and a secure safety into play last Sunday. It worked, but opened up too many targets for Brees. It may be an action replay in Minnesota, despite Brees being on the road in a proverbial cauldron. For the Saints' rapier receivers (led by Ginn, but running man Kamara is also a double-threat) can find separation in the secondary, and that could be the difference here.
Aside from their fearsome defense, perhaps US Bank Stadium itself will prove the Vikes' saving grace. This cutting-edge homefield edges Arrowhead and CenturyLink for rave-warehouse cacophony, and even seasoned quarterbacks have succumbed. However, unlike most of his peers, Brees doesn't need to maintain sideline comms with his coaches, while his mental playclock and improvisational playbook afford New Orleans offensive flexibility and reduce any delay-of-game penalties. So expect Brees to put his hard hat on, tune out the roar, and go to work moving the chains.
All of which will ask Keenum to keep pace. He finished the regular season with a 98.3 QB rating (a wafer shy of Bradford's 99.3 mark in 2016, although ahead of Bridgewater's 88.7 in 2015) and will have to rely on Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs if he is to maintain stride with Brees. Stud tight end Kyle Rudolph is still short of rude health, despite a week off on the treatment table, so the Saints will fancy limiting the production of one of the most efficient receiving troikas in the league.
In conclusion, then, I say Keenum's heroic efforts are more a blip than a trend. And the rebuilding of his narrative as an elite quarterback gets the wrecking-ball treatment tonight. He'll run aground when it matters most. Brees, on the other hand, can step up to the plate by again stepping up in the pocket. His facility for processing multiple reads is the game-changing component. So take New Orleans with confidence, within the safety net of some generous handicap lines.
Back New Orleans Saints (+5) to win on the Match Handicap @ [1.99] or better
Back New Orleans Saints (+3) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ [1.92] or better
Back Over 20.5 New Orleans Saints Points @ [1.91] or better
Back T.Ginn to score First / Anytime Touchdown @ [12.0] or better