Can Saints survive as the hunted?

For 43 years, the Saints were the hunter and rarely the coveted target of other NFL marksmen. That changes, starting Thursday in the Superdome.

For the first time in the 44-year history of the franchise, the Saints are starting a season with a big target on their chest.

As a result of winning the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history, the Saints will get a challenge worthy of a team that won it all when they host the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL Kickoff Weekend opener on Thursday night in the Superdome.

The Saints certainly know what to expect from the Vikings, whom they defeated 31-28 in overtime last Jan. 24 in the NFC Championship Game to advance to Super Bowl XLIV.

After that intense, hard-fought game, the Saints are expecting a similar game even though the stakes aren't nearly as high considering it's only the season opener.

"It counts as one game," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who will begin his fifth season with the team. "The first game of the season gives you an idea of where you're at in week one, but certainly there's a lot of football after this game. Yet, this game is the only one we can play right now."

Still, the Saints know they'll be hunted — not only this week against the Vikings, but every week for the remainder of the season.

The good part, quarterback Drew Brees said, is they got a taste of that last season during their 13-game winning streak to start the 2009 season.

"I feel like we had a little bit of that last year when we were on our undefeated run," he said. "All of a sudden, we were 6-0, 7-0, 8-0 and everybody wanted to be the team to knock us off.

"Especially as you get late in the season and you're playing teams that are out of the playoff race and only have a few wins but they view you almost as their Super Bowl," Brees added. "That's their big game of the year. So every time you step on the field, you know that you're getting every team's best performance."

They certainly expect that from the Vikings, who are still seething about the brutal beating quarterback Brett Favre took from the Saints defense last January.

Vikings coach Brad Childress didn't back down this week from comments he made during the spring that the Saints may have crossed the line with hits on Favre — including a memorable high-low from defensive linemen Remi Ayodele and Bobby McCray.

"I understand a quarterback's going to get hit, people are going to get hit," Childress said. "It's football. I don't have any illusions about that. What I hate to see are the late hits or attempts to hurt anybody. ... I don't think there's a place for that in the game."

SERIES HISTORY: 26th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 18-7, after taking four in a row and seven of the last eight matchups. The Vikings also lead, 2-1, in postseason play, but the Saints claimed the most important one with a 31-28 overtime decision in the NFC Championship Game last Jan. 24 to advance to Super Bowl XLIV.

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