The New York Giants are back in the playoffs after a five-year hiatus, thanks to the incredible turnaround by Brian Daboll and his coaching staff in their first year with the team. New York won 22 games in the five seasons prior to Daboll, who turned around the franchise by leading it to a 9-7-1 record and a surprising playoff berth.
Another one of the biggest surprises in the NFL was the Minnesota Vikings, who emerged as champions from the NFC North with a 13-4 record. The Vikings were 11-0 in one-score games, setting a record for wins in a season in one-score contests, yet were the first 13-win team in league history to have a negative point differential. Minnesota was able to win 13 games in head coach Kevin O'Connell's first season despite having one of the worst defenses in the league.
Both teams have a negative point differential heading into this game, making this wild-card matchup even more intriguing. The Vikings beat the Giants, 27-24, in Week 16 on a Greg Joseph 61-yard field goal to notch that 11th one-score victory. Despite the loss, that was arguably New York's best game of the season -- momentum the Giants used to clinch a playoff berth a week later and gear up for the postseason.
Will the Giants pull off the upset over the Vikings this time? Here are three aspects of the game that fall in their favor:
1. Giants welcoming back top defensive backs
Xavier McKinney and Adoree' Jackson were vital pieces to he Giants secondary this season, yet didn't play in the Week 16 loss to the Vikings. Jackson is questionable for this matchup (hasn't played since Week 11 with a knee injury), yet he's allowed just 52% of the passes targeted in his direction to be completed -- second-best on the Giants. The player on New York who was better? McKinney, who allowed a 45% completion rate in the nine games he played this year. McKinney also didn't play in the Week 16 loss, but returned the following week.
Why are having Jackson and McKinney back vital for the Giants? Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson combined for 25 catches for 242 yards and three touchdowns in the Week 16 victory. The Giants didn't have Jackson or McKinney, as Kirk Cousins picked upon the likes of Darnay Holmes, Nick McCloud and Landon Collins. Those two are going to make a difference in New York's pass defense.
The Giants blitzed 43% of the time this season, and Cousins went 14 of 21 for 166 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions with a 122.1 rating against it. With McKinney and Jackson back there, the Giants can at least contain Jefferson and Hockenson.
2. Saquon Barkley is rested
The Giants had the luxury to rest their key players in Week 18 with their playoff spot clinched and the No. 6 seed locked in, which allowed Barkley to have the week off after having 295 carries in his first 16 games this year. Barkley has played through injuries throughout the season, but still was able to rack up 6.0 yards per carry against the Vikings --- the only team he's averaged over 5.0 yards per carry against since Week 5.
Barkley had just 14 carries in the Week 16 loss, yet a week off sets the stage for him to have 20-plus carries for the first time since Week 8. The Giants Pro Bowl running back had 137 yards from scrimmage on 22 touches in the first meeting (6.2 yards per touch), finishing with a season-high eight catches out of the backfield. He also had a season-high 49 receiving yards in the loss.
The Vikings run defense allowed 138.7 rush yards per game over their final six games and 4.5 yards per carry on the year (22nd in NFL). The stage is set for Barkley to control the game on the ground, part of a Giants strategy to control time of possession and keep the game within reach.
3. Dexter Lawrence = difference maker
The Giants blitz more than any team in the NFL, and Lawrence has immensely benefitted in defensive coordinator Wink Martindale's scheme. Lawrence has been one of the best pass rushing defensive tackles in the league this season, as his 63 pressures are second at his position and his 28 quarterback hits are tied for second. Lawerence also had a career-high 7.5 sacks in a Pro Bowl campaign.
Here's where Lawrence can take over this game: The Vikings haven't had starting center Garrett Bradbury play since Week 13 with a back injury (Bradbury was limited in practice earlier in the week). If Bradbury can't go, Chris Reed will start for the second straight game. Reed allowed just one pressure in Sunday's win over the Bears in his first start (2.9% beat rate), but he doesn't have the experience Bradbury does to stabalize the Vikings offensive line. Reed is also the third center after Austin Schlottmann was placed on injured reserve.
The Vikings offensive line is in flux with Bradbury potentially out and right tackle Brian O'Neill out. Backup tackle Blake Brandel is set to fill in for O'Neill there. With the Vikings offensive line uncertain, Lawrence can get significant pressure against Cousins and force him to make decisions quicker than he would like.
The Giants' aggressive defense may pay off this weekend.