Saints A Must-Win

The New Orleans Saints have been through a lot the last month with the Superdome being damaged by Hurricane Katrina. But, as they come into the Metrodome, they are on their third consecutive road game, coming off a short week of practice after having to play on Monday night and could be setting themselves up to get overwhelmed by a Vikings team in dire need of a first win. We break down the Saints starters and how they match up against the Vikings.

It's early in the season for speaking of a game in terms of being a must-win, but when you've started 0-2 and have lost to a pair of teams that you fully expected to beat, Sunday's game with the Saints takes on added importance. The facts are clear – since 1990, of the 74 teams that started a season 0-3, only three of them have made the playoffs – making this a must-win game.

Perhaps the biggest thing going in the Vikings is the emotional drain that living out of a suitcase has put on the Saints players. While they won their season opener at Carolina, that emotion didn't carry over to their Monday night loss to the Giants. Not only do the Saints have a short week of practice, but this will be their third road game – typically a killer for NFL teams that rarely turns out in a win. But, the Saints have the tools to make this a shootout.

Few quarterbacks are as streaky as Aaron Brooks, who one week looks like an All-Pro and the next week looks like a backup for a community college. Through two games, he has just one TD and three interceptions, but has completed 65 percent of his passes and has been able to keep drives alive. He is a threat to run, so the Vikings will likely use Sam Cowart as a spy to make sure he stays in the pocket.

The key to offensive success the last few years for the Saints has often hinged on the running of Deuce McAllister. He has yet to get untracked this season – he's averaging just 2.7 yards on 41 carries – but he's played against a pair of strong run defenses in the Giants and Panthers. The other RBs combined have just seven carries, so the Vikings should be prepared for a steady dose of McAllister all day, especially if the Saints are ahead or the game stays close.

Over the first two games, Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot have been victimized by big plays and the Saints will be another daunting task. Joe Horn remains one of the game's top deep threats and hasn't shown any signs of slowing down with age. He's averaged more than 100 yards a game and has the Saints' only receiving touchdown. Donte Stallworth has spent much of his career battling injury problems, but he is healthy and has 12 catches for 188 yards. He has the speed to make big plays and will be a handful for the Vikings corners. With the exodus of third receiver Jerome Pathon in the offseason, second-year man Devery Henderson has become the primary third receiver, but has just three catches in the first two games. A player to keep an eye on is TE Ernie Conwell. He's not a top-end tight end, but the Vikings have allowed 14 touchdowns to tight ends in the last 14 games and that hasn't been lost on offensive coordinators around the league. Conwell could be the top red zone target when the Saints get in close.

New Orleans made an attempt to shore up its offensive line by using its first pick in the draft on Jammal Brown. At 6-6, 313 pounds, he adds some beef to a line that has been lacking since Willie Roaf was sent packing to the Chiefs. Veteran Wayne Gandy is set at left tackle, but the middle of the line will be the key to both opening holes for McAllister and keeping Kevin Williams off of Brooks. Guards Kendyl Jacox and Jeremane Mayberry are in their eighth and 10th seasons respectively and both make up for slowing up by having veteran savvy to steer defenders where they want them to go. Center LeCharles Bentley is in his fourth season and has developed into a very solid center, which will make his matchup with Pat Williams in the running game a matchup to watch.

Many of the Saints problems in recent years have come from the defensive side of the ball, where the team has consistently ranked near the bottom of the league. Some of the problems have been up front, where talented players haven't lived up to expectations. Through two games, the team has just one sack and if they don't get pressure on Daunte Culpepper, he should be able to pick them apart. DE Darren Howard is one of the top ends in the league and will lock up with Bryant McKinnie most of the day. On the other side, Charles Grant and Will Smith split time, with Grant being stronger against the run and Smith brought in during pass rushing situations. The Saints' line rotation includes the middle of the line as well, where Brian Young and coverted DE Willie Whitehead start and former first-round pick Jonathan Sullivan subs in and out in situational duties.

The linebacker corps, like the Vikings', has seen a lot of changes from what the Saints expected to have on the field before training camp opened. Second-year man Courtney Watson starts in the middle and is flanked by Sedrick Hodge and Colby Bockwoldt – both of whom were just part-time starters last year. This is a group that can be attacked by the Vikings passing game, but will also likely be let loose on blitzes to try to take advantage of the Vikings struggling offensive line.

The biggest challenge for Culpepper will be trying to take advantage of a pedestrian Saints secondary. Both Jake Delhomme and Eli Manning were kept in check in the passing game, but that may be attributed to the fact that the Saints have allowed 4.3 yards a carry in the rushing game and allowed three TDs. CBs Mike McKenzie and Fakhir Brown are both capable of being beat, but can also make plays. They're often put on an island in single coverage and, as long as the Saints struggle to get sacks, they could find themselves defending a lot of long passes. Safety Dwight Smith is reaching his prime, but still doesn't have the type of skills that make people think Pro Bowl. At the strong safety, Jay Bellamy is in his 12th year, has lost a step and at times is a liability in coverage if he arrives late on long passes. The Vikings will likely go after him, but with a depleted receiver corps that will be without Randy Moss and Nate Burleson, guys like Travis Taylor and Marcus Robinson are going to have to step up.

It's not overstating the case to say that this is a must-win for the Vikings. The Saints are beleaguered from their brutal travel schedule and should be ripe for the picking at home. The Vikings haven't hit the panic button, but if they don't beat the Saints, it might be time to start getting worried.

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