Saturday, January 23, 2010
When the Saints go marching into the Superdome on Sunday evening to face the Minnesota Vikings, they will be lugging with them the dreams of the New Orleans long suffering fans. Only one other time in the team's mostly star crossed history has it advanced this far in a quest for a championship, but that season ended there with a disappointing blowout.
Although their opponents in the NFC Championship Game have four times reached the Super Bowl in its history, the Vikings similarly have yet to end a season in jubilation. Fans of both teams share the same high hopes that this will be their year.
Drew Brees and his dynamic offensive unit are on a mission to forever erase the bad memories of paper bag mask days gone past. And, on the other side, ageless Brett Favre and his young proteges look to finish what no other Vikings team has been able to do before.
The hard, cruel reality of the NFL's annual single elimination tourney, though, is that the dream will end for one team and their fanbase on Sunday night. Conversely, the other triumphantly heads to Miami for Super Bowl 44 and further lifts the energy and anticipation in their hometown city.
While the AFC contest pits teams of contrasting styles (as detailed in yesterday's post AFC Championship Preview: Can Ryan's Jets Beat the Colts Varsity?), the NFC matches teams that are closer to mirror images. Both the Saints and Vikings can score points in bunches and are led by the two highest rated quarterbacks in the NFL this season.
On defense, Minnesota boasts the stronger unit in traditional terms of limiting yardage and scoring, but New Orleans makes up for any deficiencies with its opportunistic style. As they did last week against Arizona, they force turnovers and score points. Led by former Vikings star Darren Sharper, the Saints defense scored a remarkable 8 touchdowns in the regular season.
Both teams have struggled with pass coverage, although some of this relates to opponents playing catch-up. The Saints finished 26th against the pass, but with some of their secondary back at full strength after injuries, this number might belie their true capabilities.
The Vikings compensate for pass coverage issues with a heavy pass rush, led by All Pro Jared Allen. They led the NFL in sacks and will surely look to keep the pressure on Brees, but may be limited by the absence of its other three starters on the defensive line. All three are listed as "questionable", so this could have an huge impact on the Vikings chances.
On the other side of the line, the Vikings feature one of the NFL's biggest names in running back Adrian Peterson, while the Saints deploy a running back by committee approach. Oddly enough, the Saints have been more effective on the ground, especially considering that Peterson has not cracked the century mark in eight weeks.
The front four has also been instrumental in the Vikings 2nd rated run defense. Besides the injury factor, because the Saints tend to use the pass to set up the run, it is reasonable to assume that they will still have some success on the ground. Look for them to run delays and draws with under-rated Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, and try to get Reggie Bush in space to take advantage of his explosiveness.
A good portion of the fireworks during the regular season and thus far in the playoffs have come through the air as Brees and Favre have had spectacular years. A strong argument can be made that either of them should have finished ahead of Peyton Manning for the league MVP trophy.
If Bush plays with the same determination and energy as a week ago, it could be a long day for the Vikings. Brees will look to get the ball out quickly and make the Vikings pay for over pursuit by swinging the ball to Bush on the edges. His favorite target continues to be Marcus Colston, but Brees does an exceptional job getting everyone involved in the offense.
Favre will attempt to use his big arm to get the ball down the field and change things up by dumping the ball off to Peterson, Chester Taylor and hopefully Percy Harvin, who is a game time decision due to migraines. The Vikings big vertical threat is lanky, fast and athletic Sidney Rice, who lit up the Cardinals with three touchdowns.
From a pure talent perspective, the Vikings could be the best team in football. However, the Saints look to be healthier, have home dome advantage and seem to have intangibles in their favor.
The ultimate swing factor comes down to the two QB's, though. Brees has a history of consistently playing well in big games, and although he has had the greater fan fare, Favre has had a Jekyll and Hyde persona in big games throughout his career. On Sunday, my money is on Brees and the Saints to continue their quest to make "The Aints" moniker a distant memory.