Super Bowl

Preview: Vikings (0-0) at Saints (0-0)

Finally, the regular season is here.  And what better way to start the season than with a rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game between the Saints and Vikings?

In last season’s tilt, New Orleans edged Minnesota, 31-28 in an overtime thriller.  The Vikings may have dominated a lot of statistical categories, but their 5 costly turnovers did them in.  The Saints, meanwhile, had just 1 turnover and kept plugging away to create opportunities.

The hype surrounding the Thursday night opener is intense.  Vikings coach Brad Childress has essentially called the Saints a “dirty” team for the many hits they laid on quarterback Brett Favre.  Maybe the Vikings are still kicking themselves for losing a game they thought they should have won?  The Saints, for their part, are downplaying the any hint of a true rivalry.  Usually the teams on the winning side of things do, you know.

Roster turnover wasn’t a big issue for either team during the offseason.  So, you would expect these two NFC contenders to have the same strengths that they had in 2009.

The biggest concerns for the Saints are that they are missing two starters on defense.  Safety Darren Sharper, a catalyst for so many big plays last year, is on the PUP list and won’t be back for at least 6 weeks.  Linebacker Jonathan Casillas is going to miss the entire season with a foot injury.  Casillas was to replace former Saint Scott Fujita, who left for Cleveland via free agency.

It will be interesting to see how Sharper’s replacement, Malcolm Jenkins, will perform in his new role.  Jenkins was drafted as a corner and converted to safety in the offseason.  Coach Sean Payton has said he’s very comfortable with what Jenkins can bring to the table.  Still, Sharper is a seasoned veteran and it’s hard to replace that wealth of experience.

On offense, the Saints are going to have to do a lot better job of controlling the line of scrimmage than they did in the NFC Championship.  Minnesota’s front seven made things very difficult in that game.  Running backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush must work in tandem to keep the Vikings off balance.  That’s going to allow Drew Brees more time to look down the field.

Defensively, you have to like a lot of what the Saints did in last season’s matchup.  Vikings running back Adrian Peterson may have had a good day in terms of yardage, but his costly fumbles were a huge factor.  Brett Favre may have had a 300 yard day, but the key 4th quarter interception by Saints’ corner Tracy Porter rendered the yardage numbers irrelevant.  The Saints, as they so often did last year, bent but didn’t break.

If the Saints can pressure Favre as they did last year (and do so without any roughing the passer calls), it can go a long way in making the Vikings a one-dimensional offense.  Favre himself wasn’t sure how his surgically repaired ankle will hold up this season.  If he takes another pounding in week 1, the defense may get in his head as much as they do his ankle.

And, as if the emotions heading into this game weren’t enough, the Saints’ championship banner ceremony is sure to get the Superdome crowd into some kind of frenzy.  The atmosphere of this game should just be electric, even for those of us not fortunate enough to be in the dome.  Enjoy it, Saints fans!

Keys to the Game:
1. Don’t get carried away
– The emotion may be the biggest hurdle for the Saints in this game.  The fact that the banners will be unveiled, the electricity in the crowd, and the anticipation of a new season will all be wrapped up in those pregame ceremonies.  The Saints have to use that to their benefit, while being careful not to lose focus on playing smart football.

2 Pierre and Reggie – The Saints’ talented running back duo can play a significant role in helping the offense put up some big numbers.  I’d look for the Saints to use them both not only as runners, but as threats in the passing game as well.  A few well-timed screen plays can slow down the Vikings pass rush.

3. Drew it again – We all know what Drew Brees is capable of doing.  But perhaps the best thing he did in the Super Bowl run was avoiding the costly turnover.  Again, this is where the emotion comes into play.  Let’s look for a cool Brees on Thursday night.

4. Get Brett – The Vikes are already ticked-off about the pounding their elder statesman QB took last season.  Putting pressure on Brett Favre can not only disrupt a play, it can also get this Vikings team off of their game.

5. Stay special – The Saints’ special teams were outstanding in 2009.  However, their coverage units had some struggles in the preseason.  This unit will have to return to their 2009 form to help keep the Vikings’ dangerous attack pinned back in their own end of the field.

Prediction: Saints 27 – Vikings 24

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