Early Sunday evening, the New Orleans Saints will play the most important game in the franchise's existence
If course, if the Black and Gold are victorious, the biggest game in franchise history will be played in south Florida two weeks later.
Minnesota and New Orleans are polar opposites. One has ice fishing, the other every other kind of fishing imaginable.
One has a rich Scandinavian culture and heritage, the other French, Spanish and West African with significant strains of Irish and Italian mixed in.
There are three things Minnesota and New Orleans share: outsiders both think people in both locales talk funny, though in much different ways; the Mississippi River rolls near both of their football stadiums; and nasty playoff experiences when the two have met, at least from the Saints’ perspective.
While the Atlanta Falcons are the Saints’ biggest rival, there’s no team the Saints have more post-season history than with the Vikings. Yes, even more so than the hated Chicago Bears.
It was the Vikings that faced the Saints in their first ever playoff game. The Black and Gold’s time in their first post-season was brief as the Vikings eliminated them after a 44-10 shellacking in the Superdome.
After winning their first playoff game against the Saint Louis Rams in 2000, the Saints were eliminated in the second (divisional) round by the Vikings in Minneapolis.
Two years later a sloppy two-point conversion by Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper on the second to last play of the game proved to be the death knell for the Saints’ playoff hopes in the 2002 season.
In other words, the Saints have some serious unfinished business with the Vikings.
The Match Up
On paper, the Minnesota Vikings are the better team.
The Vikings have a potent, albeit not on the same level as the Saints’, offense led by the greatest redneck athlete of all time, quarterback Brett Favre. Along with the future Hall of Famer, the Vikings have running back Adrian Peterson, wide receivers Percy Harvin, Bernard Berrian, and Sidney Rice and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.
In regular season play, the Vikings’ offense had the league’s 5th highest yards per game average (379.6) and were second in points scored per game (29.4), behind the Saints. The Vikings had fairly balanced offense, ranking 8th in passing yards (259.8) and 13th in rushing yards (119.9) per game.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings led the NFL with 48 sacks, 13 more than the Saints. The allowed the 10th fewest points per game (19.5) and the 6th fewest yards per game (305.5). The Minnesota defense was better at stopping the run than the pass, giving up the 2nd least rushing yards per game (87.1) but ranked 19th against the pass, surrendering an average of 218.4 yards per game.
The Saints had the most prolific offense in the NFL in points (31.9) and yards (403.8) per game. Like the Vikings, the Saints managed to spread their offense around, ranking 4th in passing (272.2) and 6th (131.6) ground yards per game.
Defensively the Saints did not have the kind of overnight turnaround most fans had hoped for when the organization landed the services of highly coveted “free agent” defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. At least concerning reducing yards and points allowed.
The Saints defense was 20th in points allowed (21.3) and 25th in total yards (357.8) per game. The Black and Gold defense were only marginally better at stopping the run, 21st in the league (122.2 yards per game) than they were at containing the pass as they were 26th allowing an average of 235.6 passing yards per game. As previously mentioned, the Vikings defense had over a dozen more sacks than the Saints defense.
Where Williams had his impact and where the Saints defense has excelled is in the turnover game.
The Saints defense snagged 26 picks, 3rd in the league, and forced 15 fumbles with 13 recovered. The Saints defense scored 8 touchdowns from turnovers.
While the Saints defense is not adept at stopping plays, they proved to be among the best at making plays.
In contrast, the Minnesota defense ranked 26th in interceptions with a relatively paltry 11. The Vikings defense had more success forcing fumbles, knocking out 23 from their opponents though they only recovered 13. The Vikings defense only scored a single touchdown.
Darren Sharper (et al.) v. Brett Favre It’ll be a duel between two veterans whose likenesses will one day join those of other greats in Canton one day. The Saints free safety has not been shy about wanting to meet his former team in the NFC Championship game. Will the Saints secondary frustrate the gunslinger and bail out a Saints offense that will likely struggle against the second coming of the Purple People Eaters or will Favre add another chapter in the story of the greatest quarterback in the game.
The Saints O-Line v. PPE2 Members of the Saints offensive line, the most thankless job on the field, have received one of the highest compliments in their profession with three invitations to the 2010 Pro Bowl. Hopefully the honor will be only ceremonial as the selected players will be prepping for a far bigger game the next week. However they will be tested like no other time this season against a fearsome foursome that has wrecked havoc on opposing quarterbacks with a combined 31 sacks. Can Saints quarterback Drew Brees get enough time to burn the Viking secondary or will Brees end up being the one with the pants on the ground and the football in a Minnesota defender’s hands?
Welcome to the Big Time Adrian Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem, who had a breakout season, suffered an ankle injury against the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional playoff game. While Meachem’s absence will be filled by the returning Lance Moore, a favorite target of Brees, concern about the severity of Meachem’s injury led to the cutting of quasi-(and now fully) retired running back Deuce McAllister and the promotion from the practice squad of wide receiver Adrian Arrington.
The Saints traded up in the 2007 draft to pick up the Michigan wide-out who spent his first season on injured reserve and his second season on the practice squad. Saints fans on the blogosphere have been obsessing with Arrington on a level approaching Reggie Bush’s stratospheric expectations, except number 25 has played in a game that wasn’t in preseason. Saints wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson highly touted Arrington’s promise on a sorts radio show, only feeding the frenzy.
That said, Mr. Arrington this is your chance. Whatever you do in the post-season will weigh heavily concerning your future with the Saints organization. Solid play against the Vikings could help compensate for a weak 2010 preseason. On the other hand, dropped passes or fumbles could mean you won’t have that opportunity. Keep in mind that wide receiver Rod Harper, who had a near Pierre Thomas-esque preseason, is going to be hunting for a full time gig after he gets off IR.
Run the Damned Ball! Here’s something of interest: in the Saints three, count them three, playoff wins, they have rushed the ball no less than 29 times. TWENTY-NINE TIMES!
In significant contrast in all SIX of their post-season losses, the Saints have rushed the ball LESS than 23…that’s TWENTY-THREE times. Actually it’s worse than that as TWENTY-TWO was the high-water mark of the losses- against the Falcons when the Black and Gold lost by touchdown. Against the Chicago Bears in 2007, the Saints ran the ball only TWELVE times in a loss after rushing it THIRTY-FOUR times against the Philadelphia Eagles in a win the week before.
Will Shockey Play? The tight-end’s presence in the Dallas game was sorely missed. If Jeremy Shockey, who did not practice on Wednesday, is unable or limited against the Vikings on Sunday, Brees will have a tough evening.
The Oddsmaker’s Take and the Blogger’s
Danny Sheridan of USA Today has the Saints as a 3.5 favorite, not bad considering the Saints’ playoff history with the Vikings and the Minnesota’s stout defense.
As I said earlier, I do think the Vikings are a more complete team. They have a comparable offense and a vastly superior pass rush.
But the Saints have a few intangible advantages.
One, for the first time, the Black and Gold will be playing in their first NFC Championship game in the Superdome. Four years ago, the Saints went to Soldier Field to take on a team that I did not think was better than them. And to this day, I believe the 2006 Saints were better than the 2006 Chicago Bears; the difference was the Bears PLAYED better.
Having the crowd at the Bears’ back and in the Saints offense’s ears had an impact.
Secondly, there’s maturity. Most the Saints players on the roster have been there already. The Saints were unprepared for the weather and field conditions in their last NFC Championship appearance. Then and now, I blame Coach Sean Payton for not doing a better job breaking in his team. The cold took its toll in dropped passes and four fumbles.
Another problem with the 2007-2008 Payton game plan was an over reliance on the pass. Last season’s road game at Tampa Bay was I believe a turning point, or as President Barack Obama would call it, a teachable moment.
This season we have seen the benefits of investing in a ground game. Payton then had all of the tools he has now, as Thomas, Bush, Mike Bell and Lynell Hamilton were on the roster or practice squad. Payton just opted not to use them.
Another area where the Saints have grown up is resiliency. The Miami and Washington contests were equally frustrating as they were inspiring. They played four quarters and found ways to win. They made their own breaks and put themselves in position to take advantage of the other team’s bad luck.
And it should be said that Bush has found his groove playing the role of a cameo superstar that bedevils opposing defenses as a player and as a decoy.
In summation, this Saints squad, from coaches to players, is a far better team than the one that was previously a mere game away from Bobby Hebert having to wear a dress.
Better might not be the best way to describe this team. Best ever is more fitting.
Finally there is that one thing the Saints have that no other team seems to: mojo.
You can also call it magic, soul, gris-gris luck or just being blessed. They’ve got something going you can’t teach or coach.
The Saints secondary has played like special forces, Brees has been as accurate as any conventional weapon stockpiled by the Pentagon and the o-line would have made Leonidas and his resolute Spartans proud.
To borrow a line from Denny Green, I’m not going to crown ‘em. The Super Bowl is another matter altogether. But I do think this team will play in the big game and that’s progress.
The most climactic moment in Saints history was not the reopening of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. That was a rebirth of a team, a stadium and a community.
No, the apogee of excitement for the Saints happened under the watch of a coach I don’t hold in very high regard, Jim Haslett.
Bono nor Green Day have nothing on Jim Henderson, the voice of the Saints, when he screamed “Hakim dropped the ball! Hakim dropped the ball!”. That is the highpoint in the soul of a true Saints fan that witnessed it.
It didn’t matter that the Vikings easily dispatched the Saints the next weekend in the divisional round. That Saints team was so riddled with injuries that it was held together with chewing gum and duct-tape. They weren’t going to the Super Bowl and every objective Saints fan, the few of us out there, knew it. But that didn’t matter.
That moment told us we weren’t cursed, as the Pat Robertson of football analysts might have hypothesized with much more credibility before that game.
With all that said, and I realize I am now going on like US Senator Scott Brown, I believe the Saint will beat the Minnesota Vikings this weekend with the margin being determined by the level of involvement by number 88 in the game.
So if Shockey plays, give the points; if Shockey looks to be limited, take them.
Either way I believe the Saints will return to the scene of their mid-season miracle hoping to experience a second.