Perceived slights fueling Vikings going into playoff matchup with Saints

EAGAN, Minn. -- Mike Zimmer wasn't interested in watching the Seattle Seahawks botch their chance at claiming the NFC West and lose out on hosting the Minnesota Vikings during wild-card weekend.

Zimmer didn't watch Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers and Seahawks, and he went to bed before it ended. He woke up to a text message in the middle of the night and learned that because of Seattle's 26-21 loss, his Vikings would play the No. 3 seed New Orleans Saints at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.

"Cool," Zimmer thought to himself before going back to sleep.

Zimmer could rest easy in the moment knowing that Minnesota earned its third 10-win finish in his six years at the helm, having been locked into the No. 6 seed ahead of a Week 17 loss to the Chicago Bears. But the stakes the rest of the way undoubtedly change the perception of a team that has to win three straight road games to get to the Super Bowl.

Since 2013, 10-win No. 6 seeds have been dangerous in the wild-card round, going 6-2 in that time frame, including two wins in which they were favored going in. (The Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers advanced to the divisional round as the six seeds in the 2015 playoffs.)

There's a dose of positive history on the Vikings' side against a Saints team they beat in the playoffs in miracle fashion two years ago, but Zimmer doesn't think anybody believes they can get past the first round.

"We're eight-point underdogs; we're going on the road; they just had an NFL video of all the playoff teams except us," Zimmer said. "We'll just go from there."

New Orleans coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have posed brutally difficult matchups for Zimmer over the years, and they are 6-1 at home together in the playoffs since joining the Saints in 2006. The only coach-quarterback duo with more home playoff victories in that span is the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick and Tom Brady with 15, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.

Brees is averaging almost 300 yards passing with a 16-3 touchdown-interception ratio in playoff games at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Had it not been for Lamar Jackson's magical season, the Saints' Michael Thomas might have become the first receiver in NFL history to win MVP, after setting the single-season record for receptions (149).

"It's important that when you get in games like this, No. 1, that you have to be able to execute, do what you've been doing all along, but mistakes are magnified now," Zimmer said. "Every little thing becomes a lot more magnified because of the consequences of winning and losing. So everybody has to do a little bit extra in preparation so that we don't make those mistakes, we line up and play hard and play fast."

This is a tough draw for the Vikings, who finished the regular season with two straight losses. At this time of year, the desperation meter cranks up to heights not seen from September through December.

"There's definitely a sense of urgency," Minnesota wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "You sit in that meeting room today and you think about, ‘How am I going to prepare this week? What am I going to do a little bit extra of?' to make sure that when this game's over, you made sure you gave everything you've got.

"So obviously, there's a fine line of making sure that it's going to translate to the game and things like that. You're not just working to work. So just trying to figure that out and also stick to your routine and make sure that you're not doing too much just because it's a playoff game."

With an eye on their postseason future, the Vikings opted to rest running backs Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison over the past two weeks while they recovered from lingering injuries.

The offense wasn't the same in a loss to the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 23 in a game that, had the Vikings won, would have put them in contention for the NFC North title in Week 17. The Packers pressured quarterback Kirk Cousins without the threat of a Minnesota run game.

"They dared us to run the ball, and we didn't run it," Zimmer said.

With Cook feeling healthy, the Vikings gain back their most dangerous weapon. They're a different team when Cook, who rushed for 1,135 yards in 14 games, is playing.

A win in New Orleans means the Vikings would play the 49ers at Levi's Stadium during the divisional playoffs, a road that doesn't get any easier despite what Minnesota would have accomplished to get there.

Keeping an eye on the magnitude of the situation isn't the primary focus this week, but it's not far from many players' minds. The all-or-nothing approach is meant to sift through a talented field of teams vying to be the last one standing. By this time next week, Minnesota hopes to have checked that first box on the path toward proving why it belongs.

"You've got to kind of keep it in your back pocket because you know you lose and go home, but win you keep going," Cook said. "So our goal is to keep winning, try to get to San Francisco, just got to take it one game at a time."