MINNEAPOLIS — The Saints deserved to relish this one for a moment, a primetime triumph on the road against the Vikings team whose Miracle ended their playoff run back in January.
But when the 30-20 win was complete Sunday night, and scattered "Who Dat?" chants subsided at U.S. Bank Stadium, and the volume turned down on the bass that thumped through the locker room doors, there wasn’t a player in the room unaware of the next team on the schedule.
"Who?" star running back Alvin Kamara deadpanned, before smirking during our NFL Network interview. "No, I’m just playing, yeah, we know."
Standing at his side as usual, teammate Mark Ingram added: "Hey, we ready, though. Everybody gotta come see us. Everybody. We ain’t scared of nobody. We ain’t intimidated by nobody."
That includes the Los Angeles Rams, the NFL’s last unbeaten at 8-0, who come to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next Sunday to face the 6-1 Saints in what feels like a showdown for midseason NFC supremacy.
It’d be foolish to reduce this to a two-team race in October. The Panthers are 5-2. So are the Redskins, who have won three straight since the Saints routed them 43-19 a few weeks ago. The 4-3-1 Vikings seemed to be in control most of the first half Sunday, before the first of two critical turnovers shifted the tide. The 3-3-1 Packers were a Ty Montgomery fumble away from giving Aaron Rodgers a shot to run the league’s best 2-minute drill and knock off the Rams in L.A. The Super Bowl champion Eagles are back to 4-4 after offing the Jaguars in London. Even the 4-3 Seahawks, who took the Rams to the wire three weeks ago, appeared another step closer to recapturing their formula with a victory in Detroit.
But you won’t find many Week 8 matchups with two hotter teams — the Rams perfect and the Saints winners of six straight since the Buccaneers’ Fitzmagic won a Week 1 shootout that feels more like seven years ago than seven weeks ago, given everything that has happened since.
"I mean, we could say we shouldn’t have been beaten yet either," Saints receiver Michael Thomas told me. "But it is what it is. Now we’ve just got to go out there and play Saints football. It should be a good one."
That the Saints’ defense came up big after the Vikings’ early dissection Sunday was as good a sign as any that they’re ready to take on Sean McVay’s multidimensional Rams attack.
Minnesota went 91 and 80 yards on its first two possessions, both ending in touchdowns, and was in the red zone again on its fourth — with a chance to go up 20-10 — before linebacker Alex Anzalone’s hit ruined another record-setting night for Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, whose fumble was recovered by cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Two plays later, Kamara’s 1-yard touchdown plunge gave the Saints their first lead at 17-13 just before halftime.
Out of the break, Lattimore smacked the ball out of Laquon Treadwell’s hands on fourth and 1, the Saints kicked a field goal to make it 20-13 and then they broke things open when Stefon Diggs stopped on a crossing route and Kirk Cousins served up a pick-six to cornerback P.J. Williams, who Cousins had picked on in the early going. Minnesota’s next drive ended when Sheldon Rankins decleated center Pat Elflein with a stutter-bull rush on third-and-4, the Saints drove for another field goal and it was 30-13 by early in the fourth quarter, silencing what had been a raucous crowd on a night Drew Brees, Kamara and Co. netted just 270 yards, but nonetheless scored on five of their eight possessions.
As one Saints official pointed out to me after the game, they caught the Vikings at a good time, with several key players — cornerback Xavier Rhodes, linebacker Anthony Barr and two starting offensive linemen, among others — sidelined by injuries. Then again, it’s Week 8, and everybody’s a little messed up at this point. Timing plays a factor in all these games.
"Listen, we’re going to have to grind this tape," Rankins told me. "We played (the Rams) last year, but they’re a whole different animal this year. So it’s definitely going to be our biggest task yet. But we’re confident in the guys we have and it’s going to be a fun battle."
The Saints also were on a long winning streak (eight games) when they faced the Rams last Nov. 26, and fell 26-20. That game was at the Coliseum, though.
"We respect them. They a great team," Ingram told me. "But we know when we do, when we play the way we play, in our dome — pssh, it’s hard. It’s tough sledding."
In this stadium, the Saints’ parting memory had been Diggs sprinting down the sideline in an NFC divisional playoff game that permanently will stand among the great finishes in postseason history. They lost the opener here last season, too.
"It was real significant to come out here with these guys and get a victory against a tough opponent in their home," Thomas said. "It hasn’t been like this the last two times we played them. So, it’s a little sigh of relief, but we know we could see this team down the road, so we just pocket this win and move on and find ways to improve."
Next Sunday won’t be a referendum on the NFC race any more than this Sunday was. No doubt, though, games like these tell a lot about what a team is made of.
"Man, it’s just going to take some hard work, man, a lot of focus this week and making sure we’re coming in locked in, not making any mistakes," Williams told me. "We’ve definitely got to play — I feel like we’ve got to play better than we played today. So I feel like we’re going to come strong and we’ll be ready for them."
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