Vikings' Mike Zimmer says defense needs to play better against Eagles
MINNEAPOLIS — The Vikings' defense might still be taking heat for blowing a 17-0 halftime lead if not for Stefon Diggs' miraculous, game-winning touchdown in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints.
Diggs' 61-yard reception from Case Keenum marked the first time an NFL playoff game had ended on a touchdown in regulation and propelled the Vikings into Sunday's NFC championship game Sunday at Philadelphia.
"If we had done some things better," coach Mike Zimmer said during an otherwise joyful postgame news conference, "it wouldn't have been this close and we wouldn't have had to throw that last pass."
Quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints scored 24 second-half points to take a 24-23 lead with 25 seconds left. It was the most points the Vikings have allowed in a second half since Zimmer's first season in Minnesota in 2014.
This season, the Vikings' top-ranked scoring defense (15.8 points per game) had allowed a paltry 8.3 points in the second half. In their three losses this season, they allowed an average of 13.3 points after halftime.
It wasn't all the defense's fault, of course. Keenum threw an interception that gave the Saints the ball on Minnesota's 30-yard line. The giveaway led to a touchdown. Two possessions later, the Vikings' protection unit allowed Ryan Quigley's punt to be blocked, giving the Saints the ball on Minnesota's 40. That led to Brees' third touchdown of the half, and first lead, 21-20, with three minutes left.
"We can't make these mistakes in playoff games or we'll be going home," Zimmer said.
"Home" as in Zimmer's ranch in Kentucky, not a fulfillment of the Vikings' goal to "Bring it Home" and be the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Super Bowl LII is scheduled for Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Among other second-half miscues for the Vikings: a fourth-and-10 conversion that kept the Saints' go-ahead touchdown drive alive, a 13-yard pass from Brees to Willie Sneed. With the game on the line, and Zimmer spending timeouts to carve out a last-gasp chance to score, the Vikings defense did rise to the occasion on third-and-one, stuffing Alvin Kamara and forcing the Saints to kick the go-ahead field goal.
While the Vikings' defense had to deal with short fields on two possessions, Brees, a future Hall of Fame quarterback, completed 12 of 13 passes on the first four drives of the second half. A trick play in which receiver Sneed — the first Saint this season not named Brees to attempt a pass — barely missed on connecting on a big gain with Kamara. The incompletion set up the Saints' only punt of the second half.
"Sometimes they made plays," Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks said of the second-half performance. "Obviously, there are some situations where we could have done better, but they practice, too."
Backup safety Anthony Harris, who filled in for injured safety Andrew Sendejo, added: "They have good players over there, so we expected them to make some plays."
The Vikings won't face a quarterback of Brees' caliber on Sunday, Jan. 21; Eagles backup Nick Foles has stepped in for injured MVP candidate Carson Wentz. In four games with Foles running the show, the Eagles are averaging 277 yards a game. If applied to a full season, it would be the NFL's worst offense this season.
On the other hand, the Eagles are 3-1 in those games and beat Atlanta 15-10 in last weekend's playoff meeting.
Kendricks said the Vikings need to be prepared for the Eagles' run-pass option schemes and their many playmakers. Running backs LaGarrette Blount, Corey Clement and Jay Ajayi have at least 321 rushing yards apiece. Pass catchers Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery have at least 768 receiving yards and at least eight touchdowns each.
"That's all the teams in the NFL, but they definitely have a lot of weapons, good schemes," Kendricks said.
The Eagles defense, featuring Kendricks' brother Michael at outside linebacker, is nearly as stout as Minnesota's, meaning points could come at a premium in Sunday's matchup. Philadelphia ranked fourth in scoring defense (18.4 per game) during the regular season.
"I always make jokes, I think my brother gets a little bit of the advantage as far as who the family roots for because he's the older one," Eric Kendricks said. "But it's all love, though."
But which Kendricks brother is a part of the better defense?
Eric just shrugged and smiled.