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2022 NFL season: Three things to watch for in London's Vikings-Saints game on NFL Network

Minnesota Vikings
2022 · 2-1-0
New Orleans Saints
2022 · 1-2-0

The NFL’s first of five 2022 International Series games was slated to feature the only two passers to ever throw for 400 yards in a London game, but Jameis Winston now appears destined to miss the contest with a back injury. He is listed as doubtful.

Kirk Cousins, who set a London record with 458 passing yards as Washington’s quarterback in a 27-27 tie against the Bengals back in 2016, will serendipitously face off again against the opposing quarterback from that record-setting game, Andy Dalton

Although there are new faces, including two first-year head coaches, the Vikings and Saints have fostered a healthy rivalry over recent years on the heels of several iconic matchups. They have twice squared off in the postseason since January 2018, with Minnesota emerging victorious both times. The first showdown gave the world the “Minneapolis Miracle." The second, a 2019 wild-card game, ended on a walk-off touchdown pass by Cousins. 

The Saints landed some punches, as well. The clubs’ most recent meeting on Christmas in 2020 saw running back Alvin Kamara tie the NFL single-game record with six rushing touchdowns

As for the present day, the Vikings and Saints are two of five teams still undefeated in London (minimum two games), per NFL Research. Both will be fighting to move to 3-0 all-time while still searching for a definitive identity to run with in 2022.

Here are three things to watch for when the Vikings and Saints meet Sunday in London on NFL Network:

  1. Justin Jefferson looking for return to form. Jefferson proclaimed in July that he’d be the best receiver in the NFL after 2022, and he looked the part to open the season against Green Bay. The third-year pro kicked off his campaign for top WR by torching the Packers’ zone coverage with nine receptions, 184 yards (20.44 yards per catch) and two scores. Against the Eagles in Week 2, however, Jefferson looked mortal, managing only 48 yards on six receptions. He was shadowed routinely by Darius Slay and definitively took the L in the head-to-head. Slay defended six targets against Jefferson, surrendered one catch, made two interceptions and allowed a 0.0 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus. Jefferson had it even worse in Week 3 versus the Lions. He came away with three catches for 14 yards, a career low. The Vikings will prioritize getting their star receiver heavier involvement in London -- especially with Dalvin Cook likely playing banged up with the aid of a shoulder harness -- but the matchup isn’t a sure thing to be a get-right spot. Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore figures to line up across from Jefferson most often. He has a history of clamping down on opposing No. 1 wideouts and frustrating them out of playing their style. In Jefferson's lone game thus far against the Saints in Week 16 of 2020, Lattimore allowed him four receptions for 55 yards when lined up as the primary defender.
  2. How much better (or worse) will the Andy Dalton-led Saints look? Winston’s doubtful status puts the 34-year-old Dalton in line to start. It’s been a slog for the Saints offense in the early going under the injured Winston, who has thrown for 858 yards with a 63.5 completion percentage, four TDs and five interceptions so far on the season. Apart from a 17-point fourth-quarter explosion against the Falcons in Week 1, New Orleans has managed only 34 points across its other 11 quarters this season, which comes out to roughly three points per fifteen-minute period. Dalton’s performance in eight games (six starts) with the Bears last year doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that he can shake the Saints from their funk -- he threw for 1,515 yards, eight TDs, nine INTs and had a 63.1 completion percentage. But the Red Rifle will still have a better supporting cast to give it a go with than he did in Chicago, even without Michael Thomas (foot) in the lineup. Chris Olave has been a target monster as a rookie (26 in his last two games), Jarvis Landry (ankle; questionable) has proven capable of still making a difference in the slot and Kamara (questionable) appears to be over his rib injury. (Update: Kamara is inactive for Sunday's matchup.) The ingredients are here for Dalton to prove himself worthy of several weeks of work to allow Winston to fully heal.
  3. Both teams need to put their stamp on the first quarter of the season. The Vikings have had an up-and-down start. After looking like world-beaters against the Packers, Minnesota was listless in all phases in a loss to the Eagles before requiring a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback against Detroit to bring their record to 2-1. That most recent win was as much about the Lions snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as it was the Vikings coming through in the clutch. Cousins, who famously struggles in exclusive-window games where no other teams are playing (11-22-1 record), has yet to receive the boost many expected from coach Kevin O’Connell’s more wide-open offense. He currently has an 83.9 passer rating, far off the pace of his previous low as a full-time starter (93.9 with Washington in 2017). Still, if he recaptures even a fraction of his 458-yard London magic and earns a victory, Minnesota would have to feel good about a three-win September. The Saints have meanwhile had a mostly down start to the year. The offense has raised eyebrows for its woebegone performances, but the defense hasn’t shown up either. The unit sits 19th in points allowed after ranking top-five in each of the last two seasons. It may also be vulnerable to Cook or Alexander Mattison for the first time in years -- the run defense has given up the seventh-most rushing yards in the league through Week 3 after ranking top four or better for four straight years. If Cameron Jordan and Co. give up ground again here while the offense fails to gain it, a playoff run becomes a little hard to imagine in the Big Easy.

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