Who's next? 6 things to watch in today's Saints-Vikings game

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Who's next? 6 things to watch in today's Saints-Vikings game

A ticket to the NFC Championship game will be punched and a trip to the Linc to face the top-seeded Eagles will be booked when the Minnesota Vikings host the New Orleans Saints this evening at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

NBC Sports Philadelphia's Derrick Gunn breaks down key points and matchups to watch for as the two teams battle for the right to face the Eagles with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line next Sunday.

• It all begins with the two head coaches. The Saints' Sean Payton and the Vikings' Mike Zimmer are longtime friends, having coached together on the Dallas Cowboys' staff from 2003-05. Payton was the offensive coordinator in Dallas while Zimmer was the defensive coordinator. Both are intense, creative and successful minds and have very similar styles of coaching. The difference: Payton is an offensive mastermind while Zimmer is a defensive guru. Zimmer's defense finished ranked No. 1 overall in the league this season. Payton's offense was No. 2 overall. Let the chess match begin.

• Keep an eye on the matchup between Minnesota all-pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas, in just his second year in the league out of Ohio State, finished sixth in the league in receiving with 1245 yards. Rhodes, Thomas' adversary Sunday, is one of the best cover corners in the game. He's got two picks and 44 total tackles on the season.

• Vikings wideout Adam Thielen finished fifth in the NFL during the regular season with 1276 receiving yards. There should be a really good battle between him and Saints' rookie first-round pick, cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore finished tied for fifth in the league with five interceptions this season.

• This game features three premiere edge-rushers. Minnesota's Everson Griffin and Danielle Hunter teamed up for 20 sacks this season. Griffin finished tied for fourth in the league with 13 sacks, while Hunter supplied seven of his own. The Saints' Cameron Jordan also had 13 sacks this season. Drew Brees and Case Keenum are both pocket passers, but is any of those guys break into the pocket, look out.

• Keep an eye on the battle in the trenches between the Vikings' defensive line and the Saints' offensive line. Minnesota has a fierce pass rush, but New Orleans allowed just 20 sacks in the regular season, second fewest in the entire league.

• Which QB will do the best job of completing plays? Brees and Keenum, the latter of whom is an unlikely MVP candidate, have been two of the best this season at staying upright. Brees has been sacked just 20 times. Keenum has been sacked just 22 times. Both guys have an uncanny ability to keep plays alive and make something out of nothing.

For more analysis on the Eagles and their opponent in next Sunday's NFC Championship Game, tune into tonight's Mission Minneapolis playoff special on NBC Sports Philadelphia following the Saints-Vikings game.

Divisional round predictions as NFL playoffs heat up

Divisional round predictions as NFL playoffs heat up

Derrick Gunn makes his divisional round predictions.

Falcons at Eagles, Saturday, 4:35 p.m. on NBC
The defending NFC champion Falcons backed their way into the playoffs, and then last weekend made an impressive postseason showing on the road against the Rams. But this isn't the high-powered Falcons' offense that averaged 33 points per game in 2016. In 2017, with basically the same personnel, it struggled to average 22 points. But the difference this season, the Falcons' defense has played better. The team's front seven is on the small side, but fast. The secondary is aggressive and well versed in man-to-man coverage. 

The jury is split on Nick Foles and whether he can handle the postseason pressure or not. The Falcons' D is not stout against the run. The Eagles have the necessary stable of backfield horses and need to establish a ground game early and stick to it. Go north and south against the Falcons, not lateral, which plays to their defensive speed. Doug Pederson needs to shorten up the passing game to keep the heat off Foles. Jim Schwartz's guys up front have to get to Matt Ryan to make him as uncomfortable as possible and keep Ryan from finding Julio Jones.

When the Falcons have scored 20 or more points this season, they're 11-0 (including the playoff win over the Rams). When they've been held to 17 points or less, they're 0-6. The Linc will be rocking. The Eagles feel disrespected that they're the underdogs. This should be a knockdown drag-out brawl. When the dust settles, look for the Eagles to still be standing.

Pick: Eagles, 23-17

Titans at Patriots, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. on CBS
An impressive wild-card comeback win by the Titans at Kansas City. The Patriots are heavy favorites but don't underestimate the fight in the Titans. They beat Jacksonville twice this season and pulled off a shocker over the Chiefs. Titans RB DeMarco Murray will miss a third straight game because of an MCL tear, but Derrick Henry is capable of a heavy workload. Henry ran for 156 yards on 23 carries vs. K.C. Tennessee can run on the Patriots' 29th-ranked defense, but scoring is another matter. The Pats give up only 18.5 points per game. New England will be hard-pressed to find success trying to run against the Titans' fourth-ranked run defense, but that's OK because Tom Brady and his top-ranked offense live through the air. The Titans have been a great story, but the defending Super Bowl champs will write the final chapter to Tennessee's season.

Pick: Patriots

Jaguars at Steelers, Sunday, 1:05 p.m. on CBS
Back in Week 5 of the regular season, the Jaguars sent a message to the rest of the league that they were for real when they rolled over the Steelers — which included picking off five Ben Roethlisberger passes. After that embarrassment, the Steelers went on to win 10 of their final 11 games. I can't wait to see Antonio Brown back on the field, going against arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. Jacksonville's rugged second-ranked defense will have to be at the top of its game to slow down the Steelers' offense. Blake Bortles is a limited quarterback and that will be the Jags' demise against the blitzing Steelers. The Jags' defense can only keep the Steelers' O from scoring for so long, and without getting much help from its offense, Jacksonville will have a long disappointing flight home.

Pick: Steelers

Saints at Vikings, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. on FOX
New Orleans has come a long way since its season-opening loss to the Vikings, but so has Minnesota. What's not to like about the Vikings' No. 1 defense (275.9 yards per game allowed; No. 2 vs. the run at 83.6 yards per game; and No. 1 in scoring defense at 15.8 points per game)? Drew Brees will need RBs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to loosen up the Vikings' defense in the run and pass game. Both RBs tallied over 1,500 yards of total offense this season. Vikings QB Case Keenum has had a phenomenal season — 67.6 completion percentage, 22 TDs, seven INTs. The Vikings' defensive front will apply the pressure, but Brees has been dropped only 21 times this season. So many scenarios could play out in this one, but the Vikings are tough to beat in their home (7-1 home record). They will successfully defend their turf.

Pick: Vikings

Who comes to Linc next week? Gunner has his picks

Who comes to Linc next week? Gunner has his picks

Derrick Gunn makes his wild-card weekend picks.

Titans at Chiefs, Saturday, 4:20 p.m. on ESPN/ABC
What an up-and-down season it has been for the Chiefs. They started 5-0, then lost six of their next seven before rallying to win their final four. The Titans struggled to reach the second season, losing three of their last four. Hard to figure out Tennessee, which beat Jacksonville twice this season but came up small against the likes of Arizona and San Francisco. The Titans' run game is taking a severe hit. DeMarco Murray is out with an MCL tear, which means Derrick Henry will get plenty of work. The Chiefs will try to get running back Kareem Hunt going against the Titans' fourth-ranked run defense. Alex Smith will look for explosive wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. The Titans have the capability to pull off the upset, but it won't happen. Andy Reid wins at home.

Pick: Chiefs

Falcons at Rams, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. on NBC
What a track meet this could be. Playoff-proven Matt Ryan vs. up-and-coming Jared Jared Goff. Both teams' running attacks can take over a game — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on one side and Todd Gurley on the other side. Both teams are loaded with pass catchers. Ryan will have to get rid of the ball quickly before a potent Rams' pass-rush attack (48 sacks) can get to him. A season ago, this Falcons team stormed into the playoffs, but this season it had to win its final game to get in. The Falcons have playoff experience on their side. But the Rams' top-ranked scoring offense (29.9 points) will put too much pressure on them.

Pick: Rams

Bills at Jaguars, Sunday, 1:05 p.m. on CBS
The Bills have the league's sixth-best run game, but that was because of LeSean McCoy, who, unfortunately for Buffalo, is dealing with an ankle injury. McCoy is hoping for a miraculous healing by Sunday but isn't making any promises about his availability. The Jaguars have a sledgehammer in their backfield in Leonard Fournette. The key for both teams is the quarterback play. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the Jags' Blake Bortles aren't playoff tested. Without McCoy, Taylor is severely handicapped going against the Jags' second-ranked defense that's No. 1 vs. the pass (169 yards) and leads the league with 33 interceptions. Both QBs are prone to make mistakes, but Bortles has a better supporting cast on both sides of the ball. Jags get the W at home.

Pick: Jaguars

Panthers at Saints, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. on FOX
It's the third time these NFC South foes will meet this season. The Saints made it a clean sweep in the regular season. The key to watch is the Panthers' third-ranked run defense (88.1 yards per game) vs. the Saints' backfield duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. In the regular season, the Saints ran for 148 and 149 yards on Carolina. The Panthers' defense is third in the league with 50 sacks but got to Drew Brees only three times in the two previous meetings. Cam Newton has to come up big for his team to have a fighting chance. They say it's hard to beat a team three times in the same season, but not in this case. The boys down in the Bayou get the job done and earn a date with the Eagles at the Linc.

Pick: Saints