The Vikings‘ new quest for Super Bowl glory will begin where the last one ended: the Superdome in New Orleans.
The bitter feeling from January’s NFC Title Game has barely subsided, and here we are already preparing for the re-match. Those seven-and-a-half months went by quickly, and they were certainly eventful.
Since January 24th, we’ve seen Brett Favre almost retire, then waffle, then reluctantly return. We’ve seen top receiver Sidney Rice undergo a hip surgery that will keep him out for half the season. We’ve watched Percy Harvin collapse on the practice field, Ray Edwards grumble about his contract, Sage Rosenfels get traded. We’ve fretted about the Williams Wall and the ongoing StarCaps case. We’ve worried ourselves sick about the secondary.
We lost Chester Taylor to free agency, and also our best back-up offensive lineman Artis Hicks. We drafted Chris Cook, Toby Gerhart and a project quarterback named Joe Webb. We speculated about Vincent Jackson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but ended up adding Greg Camarillo.
It was, in short, another crazy off-season for the Vikings. And now it’s over and the real action can begin.
The first opponent: The Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
I don’t need to remind anyone about the last meeting with the Saints and how it went down. The Vikings put up almost 500 yards of offense while holding the Saints to less than 300, but coughed the ball up 5 times. Only heroic efforts by the defense and Brett Favre kept the team from completely falling apart under the strain of so many mistakes. In the end, Favre himself put the last nail in the coffin, throwing an interception with the clock running down in the fourth quarter and the Vikings almost in range for a game-winning field goal try. The Saints claimed victory on an overtime field goal and continued to the Super Bowl.
The Saints’ defensive game-plan became the big talker after the loss. Gregg Williams blitzed Brett Favre relentlessly, and though Favre held up – and actually wasn’t sacked once – he took a massive physical pounding. Some suggested that the Saints’ low shots on Favre were dirty; indeed, the league levied fines against two Saints defenders after the game. The ill-will over the hits lingered well into the off-season, as evidenced by the online war-of-words between Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and Saints safety Darren Sharper.
The hits on Favre are still a big topic of conversation, even after seven-plus months. This week, Vikings coach Brad Childress vaguely characterized the Saints’ actions as questionable. “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 late hits or attempts to hurt anybody. I don’t think there’s a place for that in the game.”
Brett Favre, for his part, has dismissed the controversy. When asked if he thought the shots were dirty Favre said, “I’ve heard that from a lot of people and you know what my response is? It’s football.”
The league has surely taken note of the controversy, and has likely ordered its referees to call tonight’s game extra-close. The last thing anyone wants to see in a big, nationally-hyped showcase game like this is an injury to a star player like Drew Brees or Brett Favre, especially on a cheap shot.
Nevertheless, the Saints will likely come out with the same general plan as last year: blitz Brett Favre and knock him off his game. The last time the Saints tried this, Favre threw for 310 yards, but with 2 interceptions. This is the nature of the blitz: It may lead to open receivers, but it also causes rushed throws and mistakes, and puts a huge strain on the offensive line, the backs who have to pick up blockers and of course the quarterback.
Keep in mind also that, in last season’s game, the Vikings were at the peak of their offensive efficiency, coming off a dominating win over the Cowboys. This year, they go into the Saints’ blitzing buzzsaw at nowhere near top form. Last season it took them until the fourth game to really get clicking offensively, so the likelihood is that they will be shaky tonight to begin with.
The one element of the offense that can – and needs to be – in top form tonight is the running game. And if there’s one guy on the Vikings who has cause to be extra fired up tonight, it’s running back Adrian Peterson, who was charged with two fumbles last year, and was actually the guilty party in one lost fumble that was charged to Favre. Outside of the fumbles, Peterson actually had a strong game against the Saints, running for 122 yards and 3 touchdowns. But I’m sure all Peterson is thinking about is the miscues – which is why he should be doubly motivated to bring it tonight.
The Saints’ defensive effort in the conference title game gets all the attention, but the Vikings’ defense was arguably just as good. By all rights, the turnover-prone Vikings should have been blown off the field by the Saints in the second half, but the Saints’ offense was never able to deliver the death-blow. You can argue that the Saints hurt themselves by playing too conservatively, and it’s also true that their receivers dropped some balls they should’ve had, but the Vikings’ defense deserves credit for holding fast with their offense constantly coughing the ball up, giving the Saints chance-after-chance to put the game away.
Much of our concern going into tonight’s game centers around the defense, and specifically the secondary, which is down to three healthy corners plus Cedric Griffin who may or may not be able to contribute. On the plus side, this year the Vikings have a healthy Antoine Winfield, an advantage they did not enjoy during the NFC title game. Clearly, whether the secondary holds up against the Saints’ vaunted air attack will mostly be determined by how the defensive line plays. After the beating Favre took, Jared Allen, Ray Edwards and the boys should be extra-hungry to put some hits on Drew Brees – within the rules of course.
In all honesty, it’s hard to guess what kind of performance these two teams will muster tonight. Early season games are always mysteries. The Saints do enjoy the huge advantage of being at home, and having this great rush of celebratory emotion behind them. However, as we saw during the conference title game, that sort of advantage wears off after awhile. If the Vikings can withstand the initial wave of hysteria, things should even out as they did last time. The two teams look fairly evenly-matched otherwise: both can put up a lot of points when they’re clicking, both like to play physical, both have savvy veteran quarterbacks who will not get rattled.
There may be a bit of chippiness at times, even without Darren Sharper on the field, but my guess is that the lingering bad feelings over the shots on Favre will play no role in this game. In the end it will come down to which team is farther along in getting their offense in sync. Judging by the way they played in the preseason, the Vikings have a long way to go in this regard. However, as I said before, all bets are off if Adrian Peterson can get his engine revving. AD can wreck a defense all by himself, and my guess is, with Favre where he’s at physically, he will need to do that sort of thing more often this year than he did last year.
To me, success for the 2010 Vikings will depend more on Peterson than Favre. It’s time for Peterson to ascend and take the pressure off the aging legend. Beginning tonight, we will see if Peterson really has it in him to carry a team to a championship, with Favre as his wingman. If he doesn’t…I believe the Vikings are in for a long, frustrating season.