From the time the Vikings season came to an end following a home playoff loss to Philadelphia to close out the 2008 season, there was a theme running throughout the comments made by players. They had achieved their goal of winning the NFC North title for the first time since the league realigned teams, but that wouldn't be good enough for 2009. The Vikings not only wanted to repeat as division champions but fight for a first-round bye and get to the Super Bowl. Those were lofty goals, but ones the players were convinced they could achieve.
With 13 wins in their first 17 games, the Vikings find themselves one game away from realizing that goal. But the final hurdle is going to be a formidable one – the 14-3 New Orleans Saints, a team that started the season 13-0 and has been the NFC's top seed throughout the season. The Saints' calling card has been on offense. The team has scored 24 or more points in all 14 of its victories, has scored 30 or more 10 times and scored 45 or more points a whopping five times. It is as potent an offense as the league has seen since the Patriots in 2007 and much of the credit belongs to quarterback Drew Brees.
Brees, who was effectively run out of San Diego to make room for youngster Philip Rivers, has been a dominant quarterback for the Saints in each of his four seasons in New Orleans. He has rewritten the Saints record books continually since his arrival and, as strong as he had been in his first three seasons, his 2009 year has been his best. He set an NFL record by completing 363 of 514 passes (an unbelievable 70.6 percent completion rate) for 4,388 yards with 34 touchdowns, just 11 interceptions and a league-best passer rating of 109.6. Seven of his receivers have caught 35 passes or more and thrown touchdown passes to 10 different players. Armed with a quick release and an ability to find open receivers, Brees spreads the ball around like few other quarterbacks in the league. On any given play, multiple receivers might be the "hot read" and Brees is adept at finding the weakness in an opposing defense. If the Vikings are to win Sunday, one of most pressing objectives will be to pressure Brees and not give him time to survey the field in the pocket. If they don't, he will pick the Vikings defense apart as he done to so many other teams during the course of the 2009 season.
While the Saints passing game is what many have credited to the team having the top-ranked offense in the NFL, its running game has been just as important. The Saints finished sixth in the league in rushing with 2,106 yards, despite not having a runner in the top 20 in rushing yards. The Saints have accomplished their task through a running back-by-committee approach. Their leading rusher was Pierre Thomas, who carried just 147 times (nine rushes a game) for 793 yards (a 5.4-yard average), as well as catching 39 passes for 302 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. An unheralded second-year man last year, when injuries struck the Saints backfield he stepped up and showed he could be the bell cow of the backfield. However, this season, he hasn't led the team in rushing attempts. The most carries of any of the Saints backs came from former Broncos castoff Mike Bell. Bell ran 172 times for 654 yards and five touchdowns. They are joined by multitalented Reggie Bush, who rushed 70 times for 390 yards, caught 47 passes for 335 yards and scored eight touchdowns. Despite having what was viewed as a down year, his explosive performance against Arizona in the divisional round of the playoffs and his two punt return touchdowns against the Vikings last year showed that, when healthy, he is as dangerous a threat to score from anywhere on the field as there is in the league. As if this three-headed beast wasn't enough, the Saints have also incorporated second-year man Lynell Hamilton. He had 35 carries for 125 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season, but has been incorporated into the offense of late as the short-yardage and goal-line back. The Vikings will have their hands full with this group because they interchange throughout the game and, while they may not have a dominant 20-carry-a-game runner like Adrian Peterson, they have been able to get as much, if not more, production from their group of runners.
The receiver corps is also an embarrassment of riches for the Saints. They had seven players catch 35 or more passes and have an arsenal of weapons with which to attack the Vikings defense. The primary threat is massive Marques Colston. At 6-4, 225, he is difficult to jam at the line and creates mismatches downfield with smaller cornerbacks. He led the Saints with 70 catches for 1,074 yards and nine touchdowns and has the ability to make big plays, especially in the red zone, where his height creates problems and he and Brees have an excellent rapport on fade routes. On the other side is Devery Henderson. A sixth-year player from nearby LSU, Henderson has never fully developed into the star the Saints envisioned, but he still caught 51 passes for 804 yards (a 16-yard average) and scored two touchdowns. He has excellent speed and can create separation quickly. While he hasn't been a big home run threat this season, he has the speed to get deep in a hurry. The big-play guy this season for New Orleans has been third-year man Robert Meacham. Still not a very polished receiver in terms of crisp route-running, he burst on the scene this year as a big-play monster. He caught just 45 passes, but they covered 722 yards. He led the team with a 16-yard reception average and tied for the team lead with nine touchdowns. He's not an every-down receiver, but clearly has been able to create problems for defenses that single-cover him with nickel corners. The Vikings will likely ask Antoine Winfield to shut him down, which may be a tall order. As if they weren't enough, 2008 sensation Lance Moore also fits into the mix. Hampered by injuries much of the season, Moore has been somewhat lost in the shuffle. He caught just 14 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns but has the ability to get a lot of yards after the catch and will be yet another problem for the Vikings secondary to deal with.
With so many wide receivers with talent, it would be easy to imagine that the Saints wouldn't have much in the way of talent at tight end, but nothing could be further from the truth. Former Giant Jeremy Shockey has been a favorite target of Brees over the middle when the receivers clear out the intermediate zone. He caught 48 passes for 569 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season and, despite playing essentially on one leg against Arizona, hauled in another touchdown in the divisional playoffs. He has been sidelined during this week of practice, but, given the type of competitor he is, expect to see him on the field. If he is limited, the Saints also have David Thomas, who quietly amassed 35 catches for 356 yards and a touchdown in a backup role. Both Shockey and Thomas will be the responsibility of the Vikings linebackers. Taking away this element of the passing game will be essential, since both are usually the recipients of quick, short passes that, if jumped by Vikings defenders, could lead to turnovers.
The Saints offensive line may not be household names to a lot of Vikings fans, but they are a group that has been excellent in both run blocking and pass protection. Perhaps the scariest part of the equation is that the line is young and potentially could be together for the next several years – a daunting prospect since three of them are Pro Bowlers already. Fourth-year guard Jahri Evans was named a starter for the NFC Pro Bowl squad, along with Pro Bowl reserves John Stinchcomb, in his seventh year, at right tackle, and eight-year veteran Jonathan Goodwin at center. If there is a potential weakness, it is the relative inexperience on the left side of the line. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is a third-year player in his first full season as a starter. He will draw the assignment of stopping Jared Allen, which will be a formidable task. At left guard, Carl Nicks in his in second season and he will draw Kevin Williams (listed as questionable), which will be no picnic either. If the Vikings are to stymie the Saints offense, getting a push on the younger, less experienced left side of the line will be paramount. If both of them can stand up to the pressure, it could be a long day for the Vikings defense.
While the Saints offense has been what has drawn most of the attention to making them the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, a much-improved defense headed up by coordinator Gregg Williams is what many insiders credit with vaulting the Saints from being a good team to being an elite team.
As with most big-play defenses, it starts up front and the Saints have a defensive front line capable of dominating games. Six-year veteran Will Smith is a relentless pass rusher who led the Saints with 13 sacks and will be a monumental challenge for the Vikings' Bryant McKinnie. On the other side, the loss of veteran Charles Grant hurt the Saints defense, but six-year veteran Bobby McCray, a part-time starter for the Saints in previous years, has filled in nicely. In the middle, second-year man Sedrick Ellis has lived up to his high billing as a blue-chip 2008 draft pick and has helped improve what was the league's worst run defense. While far from dominant, he and third-year man Remi Ayodele have improved as the season has gone on. Depth is thin here, which could play to the Vikings' advantage. The Saints were 21st in run defense this year and allowed opponents 4.5 yards per rushing attempt, which may be reason enough for the Vikings to try to pound Adrian Peterson early and often at the Saints defense. If they can't consistently shut down A.D., the Vikings may be able to control the clock.
The linebacker corps is led by Pro Bowler Jonathan Vilma. Acquired in a trade with the Jets after not fitting in with New York, Vilma has become a dominant middle linebacker capable of shutting down running lanes as well as providing help in pass coverage. He can range to the sidelines and is always around the ball. You can bet Brett Favre will find where he is at pre-snap on almost every play. He is flanked by the Great Scotts – veterans Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle. Fujita, an eight-year veteran, is huge (6-5, 250) and can clog running lanes and force linebackers off routes with a bump in the five-yard zone. Shanle, a seven-year veteran, is a blue-collar type linebacker who doesn't make a lot of game-changing plays but holds up strong against the run and is solid in short-area coverage. Another eight-year veteran, Troy Evans, provides backup help. This is a solid group with experience and savvy that will play a big role in whether the Vikings offense can generate consistent, clock-milking drives or not.
The hallmark of the 2009 Saints has been its secondary. A bunch of ball hawks, the Saints led the league with 26 interceptions – five of which they returned for touchdowns. Heading up that list is former Viking Darren Sharper. A big-play producer like few others, he has thrived in Gregg Williams' defense and tied for the league lead with nine interceptions – three of which he returned for touchdowns. He lines up next to fourth-year man Roman Harper, who is the primary attacker when the Saints drop an eighth man into the box. He has some physical limitations and has been prone to showing up late providing help over the top, but given the Saints' cornerbacks, that hasn't been a big issue. The New Orleans brass believes it has the best tandem of cornerbacks in the history of the franchise in Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. Both have battled injuries this year, but, when healthy, they have combined to surrender just one passing touchdown. Both have great speed and can turn and run with the fastest of wide receivers, which has allowed the Saints to often leave them out an island with receivers to bring blitz packages at the opposing quarterback. Depth may be tested here since rookie Malcolm Jenkins has missed practice this week due to injury and the only other pure corner on the roster is former Patriot Randall Gay. Depth at safety is solid with 11-year greybeard Preston Prioleau and third-year man Usama Young providing backup help. This is an opportunistic group that has dared quarterbacks to test them and, considering they have averaged 25 yards per interception return, it is a dare they have won more times than not.
Unlike the last couple of years in the NFC, where the championship games haven't been waged between the two teams most projected would play for the conference title during the season, the Vikings and Saints have been rated 1-2 almost the entire season … and for good reason. This has all the makings of a playoff classic with a pair of high-powered offenses going up against a pair of opportunistic defenses. This will be a game decided by big plays and turnovers. Whichever team can play the more error-free game should earn a trip to the Super Bowl, while the loser goes home with a disappointing end to a one-magical season. Much in the same way the Vikings and Falcons met 11 years ago for the same right to play in the Super Bowl, the two best teams with the two best records in the NFC will throw out the past and, over the course of three hours, determine which is the team with a Super Bowl future.
Preview: Danger at every turn
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