NEW ORLEANS — Andrew Sendejo was the very last player out of the locker room on Sunday. He sat in his chair alone completely drained while the rest of the defense walked out with smiles on their faces.
The veteran safety never expected when returning from a brief stint with the Philadelphia Eagles that he would start at a new position and match up with the world’s best receiver with everything on the line.
“I’ve been in this defense for awhile, I know what the expectations are but obviously I’ve never played that spot in my entire career, especially in a playoff game,” Sendejo said. “It was a good challenge also while being on all four phases of special teams so it was a long day.”
Sendejo got the nod at nickel corner with the Vikings missing both of their usual slot players Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes. He played a significant role in the Vikings’ 26-20 overtime win in which Drew Brees only averaged 6.3 yards per attempt and turned the ball over twice.
At times Sendejo was asked to face off with receiver Michael Thomas, who broke the NFL record in receptions. The Vikings largely kept him in check, giving up 70 yards on seven receptions — a far cry from Thomas’s usual production.
“Definitely had some good challenges today,” Sendejo said, pausing as if he was still processing what had just happened. “You just have to go out there and be a ballplayer and do the best you can.”
Last offseason the Vikings moved on from Sendejo after he had played alongside Harrison Smith since the start of the Zimmer era in 2014. Anthony Harris, who picked off a Brees pass on Sunday, took over his starting job. The Eagles signed Sendejo this offseason but released him after their secondary had issues early in the year. Zimmer brought him back, in part because of his knowledge of the defense.
“I definitely never saw myself playing the nickel while playing all four phases of special teams in a playoff game,” Sendejo said. “You have to do what you have to do. They called my name. You have to step up.”
The Vikings’ defense stepped up repeatedly on Sunday afternoon, stopping Brees and the Saints on a potential go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter when Danielle Hunter created a strip-sack turnover. After the offense failed to put the final nail in the coffin, the defense slowed Brees enough to force a 49-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
One of the keys to mitigating the Brees effect was stopping the run. Outside of a 28-yard gain by Taysom Hill, the Vikings largely forced the Saints to the air, where they could keep their pass rush on. Sendejo was part of the overall effort to slow the run, finishing with three tackles. He also had a key pass break up.
The play of the Sendejo and the defense meant a little bit more for this group. Sendejo is part of a unit that started 11 players that have been here since at least 2015. They all were forced to block out the noise of rumors about Zimmer’s job status this week.
“It means a lot, man,” Sendejo said. “These guys are some of my best friends. We’ve been together a long time. It’s always good to make memories with guys like that.”
Linebacker Eric Kendricks was not surprised to see this bunch rise to the challenge.
“I feel like we had confidence all week,” he said. “We are going to keep it rolling, keep having fun and ball out.”
It was hardly the first wild playoff game that Sendejo and the defense have been part of and it might not be the last. They now head to San Francisco to match up with Kyle Shanahan’s high-powered offense. They’ll be in for another intense road atmosphere.
Once they recover from what happened at the Superdome, of course.
“It’s just one of those feelings that you have to be in that spot to even understand what that’s like,” Sendejo said. “That type of rush.”