Only three weeks ago, Greg Joseph hit his record-breaking 61-yard kick to put the Minnesota Vikings over the New York Giants in their Week 16 matchup. Even though little time has passed since their last meeting, the playoffs are a different animal and much changes when teams enter the postseason.
Minnesota, especially, is going to treat the game differently. The Vikings gave their starters some rest last week to prepare for the playoffs, but they are less healthy than when they faced the Giants on Dec. 24. Most notably, they’ll be missing Austin Schlottmann and Brian O’Neill.
How might this game be different from the first time they met? Let’s look at three factors that will decide the game from New York’s side of the ball.
While the Vikings are banged up, the Giants will likely be getting a few players back from injury this week. New York’s biggest return may be cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who has missed much of the season with a sprained MCL. Jackson has been limited in practice for the past few weeks and would be a huge addition to a secondary that gave up 133 yards and a touchdown to Justin Jefferson. If Jackson returns, Jefferson may struggle to get as open as often as he was in their first matchup.
Edge rusher Azeez Ojulari also may be returning. He exited the game against the Vikings early with an ankle injury. Ojulari has played in only six games this season, but he has recorded at least half a sack in his last five appearances. He and rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 5-overall pick in this year’s draft, are a threat to disrupt the reserve offensive linemen that the Vikings will be playing.
The Giants still have by far the highest blitz rate of any team at 39.7%, 5.3% higher than the No. 2 team, the Arizona Cardinals. The Giants got four sacks on Kirk Cousins last game, and the struggle should be even greater without Minnesota’s starting left tackle. There is a chance that Garrett Bradbury returns at center this week. But if he doesn’t, Chris Reed will again be responsible for that. If Reed is also in charge of calling out protections, as most centers are, that could spell more trouble for the O-line. Reed has struggled with snap counts in Green Bay.
The Giants open themselves up to risk with their frequent blitzing, as Cousins showed he could still deliver while they harassed him in the pocket. Cousins completed 34 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns, finding the gaps that blitzing defenders left. T.J. Hockenson was often the beneficiary of these open spaces. He had his best game in Minnesota, hauling in 13 catches for 109 yards and two scores. While the Giants aren’t going to stray from their identity, perhaps they will be warier of letting Hockenson run free.
There are no big names among the Giants’ pass catchers. Not a single Giants player broke 800 yards receiving this season, and they signed many of their top wide receivers after the season started.
However, several players have stepped up when New York needed them most. In the last game, three players recorded 75 or more receiving yards: Richie James (90), Isaiah Hodgins (89), and Darius Slayton (79). While those aren’t inspiring stat lines, it highlights not only that many of these no-name players can be relied upon at any given moment but also that the Vikings secondary still needs to improve.
Even with Duke Shelley’s rise, the Vikings still give up too much through the air. If they continue to cede easy yardage to undrafted wideout talent, the Giants could capitalize on Minnesota’s biggest weakness, despite their lack of talent for the position.