NFL Playoff Preview - Minnesota (13-4) at New Orleans (14-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A long-awaited Super Bowl appearance will be at stake when the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings, two teams that have endured their share of heartaches over the years, square off in this Sunday's NFC Championship Game. And although both participants share intriguing tales of past misfortune, neither figures to be the primary storyline for this highly- anticipated showdown between the conference's top two seeds.
That spotlight has been reserved for Brett Favre, who'll be seeking the ultimate vindication for his controversial comeback when the legendary quarterback leads the Vikings into the Louisiana Superdome.
Favre's first season in Minnesota has so far been a magical one, with the 40- year-old fitting right in as the missing piece for a talent-rich Vikings squad that captured a second consecutive NFC North title with a 12-4 regular-season record. The future Hall of Famer did his part by delivering one of the best statistical seasons of his storied 19-year career, amassing over 4,200 passing yards and placing second in the league in touchdown throws (33) and quarterback rating (107.2) in addition to completing a personal-best 68.4 percent of his attempts.
The three-time NFL MVP, who will become the oldest quarterback to start a conference championship game, further illustrated that he still has what it takes during last weekend's Divisional round of the NFC Playoffs. Favre threw for 234 yards and set a career postseason high with four touchdown passes to fuel Minnesota's 34-3 rout of the Dallas Cowboys, putting the Vikings within one win of advancing to their first Super Bowl in 33 years.
Favre himself will be trying to get to the Big Game for the first time since the 1997 season, when the former Green Bay star took the Packers to the second of back-to-back Super Bowls. He came close to making a return trip during his final year with the Pack, but threw a crippling interception in overtime of the 2007 NFC Championship that set up the deciding points in the New York Giants' 23-20 victory that day.
The Vikings have been through some gut-wrenching outcomes in the NFC Championship as well. Minnesota has lost in each of its last four bouts for the conference crown, the most recent being a 41-0 shellacking by the Giants in 2000. Two years earlier, a heavily-favored Vikings team that went 15-1 during the regular season was upset in overtime by the Atlanta Falcons in a game best remembered for usually-automatic Minnesota kicker Gary Anderson's missed 38-yard field goal try late in the fourth quarter.
The Saints certainly know a thing or two about hard times. A franchise that has produced only nine winning campaigns in 43 years of existence and didn't make the playoffs in its first 20 seasons will be playing in the NFC title game for only the second time in its history come Sunday.
New Orleans' only other berth in the NFC Championship came during its storybook 2006 season. One year after both the city and team were decimated by the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints orchestrated a remarkable seven-game turnaround to reach the playoffs before having their Super Bowl dreams dashed by a 39-14 loss at Chicago.
The 2009 Saints have also experienced plenty of highs and lows. After ripping off 13 straight wins to start this season, New Orleans limped into last weekend's NFC Divisional matchup with Arizona on an untimely three-game losing streak. The top-seeded Saints quickly regained their early-year form, however, by coming through with a resounding 45-14 triumph over the defending conference champion Cardinals.
New Orleans had all three phases operating at peak efficiency against Arizona. The NFL's top-ranked offense piled up 418 total yards and received three touchdown passes out of All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees, the defense forced two critical first-half turnovers that were converted into touchdowns, while dynamic running back Reggie Bush had a back-breaking 89-yard punt return for a score in the third quarter.
Like his counterpart on Sunday, Brees had a huge hand in getting the Saints to this point. The gritty field general established an NFL single-year record with a 70.6 completion percentage and also led the league with 34 touchdown passes and a 109.6 quarterback rating. Those sensational numbers were a big reason why New Orleans finished atop the NFL with 510 points over the course of the regular season.
Minnesota stood right behind the Saints in that category with an average of 29.4 points per game, making Sunday's clash the fifth conference championship that will pit the league's top two scoring teams.
The Vikings and Saints have met twice all-time in the postseason, with Minnesota winning an NFC Divisional Playoff in 2000 (34-16), one week after New Orleans had posted its first playoff win in franchise history, and also claiming a 44-10 decision in an NFC First-Round playoff in 1987, which marked the first postseason game in Saints annals.
Minnesota has a 18-7 lead in its all-time regular season series with New Orleans, and extended its winning streak over the Saints to four with a 30-27 road win in Week 5 of the 2008 season. Minnesota has won three straight at the Superdome since the Saints were 28-15 victors in a 2001 contest, a game that also marks New Orleans' most recent victory in the series.
The Vikings' Brad Childress is 1-0 against both the Saints and New Orleans head coach Sean Payton.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Favre (4202 passing yards, 33 TD, 7 INT) may be the only current Minnesota player capable of remembering the team's last Super Bowl season, but the elder statesman's terrific performance and display of unbridled enthusiasm during this past weekend's win shows he's still got plenty left in the tank. The veteran ironman has good reason to be excited, considering he presides over a dangerous offense that set an NFL record with six receivers catching 40 or more passes this season. The best of the bunch is wideout Sidney Rice (83 receptions, 1312 yards, 8 TD), a Pro Bowl selection who burned the Cowboys for 141 yards and a club playoff-record three touchdowns on only six grabs in the Divisional round. Speedster Bernard Berrian (55 receptions, 4 TD) and rookie sensation Percy Harvin (60 receptions, 8 total TD) prevent opponents from focusing solely on Rice, and running backs Adrian Peterson (1383 rushing yards, 18 TD, 43 receptions) and Chester Taylor (338 rushing yards, 44 receptions, 2 total TD) give Favre reliable options when he checks down. The Saints will also have to pay attention to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (56 receptions), a terrific red-zone weapon who led the Vikes with 11 touchdown catches in the regular season. Peterson finished second in the NFC in rushing yards this year but enters the title game in a slump, having failed to eclipse 100 yards since mid-November and managing just 63 yards on 26 carries in last week's win. He's averaging a mediocre 3.3 yards per attempt over his past eight outings.
Minnesota's potent passing game will be challenged by an aggressive New Orleans stop unit that ranked third in both pass efficiency defense and interceptions (26) at season's end. A strong secondary is anchored by ball- hawking free safety Darren Sharper (71 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 15 PD), a former teammate of Favre's in Green Bay who earned a fifth career Pro Bowl nod after tying for the league lead with nine interceptions. The 34-year-old should be quite familiar with Sunday's foe, having spent four seasons with the Vikings before joining the Saints via free agency in the offseason. New Orleans only registered one sack against the Cardinals last week, but a front line headed by end Will Smith (49 tackles, 13 sacks, 1 INT) and tackle Sedrick Ellis (34 tackles, 2 sacks) was able to effectively pressure quarterback Kurt Warner and create problems. The Saints can be run on, however, and it will be up to linebackers Jonathan Vilma (110 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) and Scott Fujita (58 tackles, 1 sack) and strong safety Roman Harper (102 tackles, 1.5 sacks) to contain the powerful Peterson and prevent any long runs like the 70-yard touchdown burst the team allowed to Arizona's Tim Hightower its last time out.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Like the Vikings, New Orleans sports a high-powered and versatile offense that features an elite quarterback in Brees (4388 passing yards, 34 TD, 11 INT) and doesn't lack for playmakers. Wide receiver Marques Colston (70 receptions, 1074 yards, 9 TD) has posted over 1,000 yards in three of his first four seasons, while running mate Devery Henderson (51 receptions, 2 TD) averages nearly 20 yards per catch for his career and hauled in a 44-yard touchdown strike from Brees against Arizona last week. Bush (390 rushing yards, 47 receptions, 8 total TD) showed off his superior open-field skills as well, with the former Heisman Trophy winner ripping off a 46-yard scoring run in addition to his big punt return and generating 108 yards from scrimmage on only nine touches. He'll again share the backfield load with the steady Pierre Thomas (793 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 8 total TD) to provide support for Brees, an exceptional marksman who's been intercepted only four times and thrown 23 touchdown passes in nine games at the Superdome this season. The Saints compiled a healthy 171 rushing yards in their ousting of the Cardinals and may have to rely more on the ground game on Sunday, with two important pass-catchers -- tight end Jeremy Shockey (48 receptions, 3 TD) and wide receiver Robert Meachem (45 receptions, 9 TD) -- dealing with injuries. Shockey is expected to play despite a nagging turf toe problem, but Meachem's status appears iffy after he sprained an ankle versus Arizona.
The key to slowing down the Saints' prolific attack is taking Brees out of his comfort zone, no easy feat against a quarterback who's been sacked one time or less in 11 of New Orleans' 17 games this season. The Vikings are one team with the potential to do so, as evidenced by the defense's merciless harassment of the Cowboys' Tony Romo in the Divisional round. Minnesota sacked the Dallas triggerman six times last week, with unheralded end Ray Edwards (51 tackles, 8.5 sacks) accounting for three of those takedowns and premier pass rusher Jared Allen (51 tackles, 14.5 sacks) getting one that forced a turnover deep in Cowboys' territory. The Vikings are able to manufacture constant pressure in part because they're so good at stopping the run, with the stout tackle tandem of Pat Williams (44 tackles, 2 sacks) and Kevin Williams (30 tackles, 6 sacks) anchoring a group that yielded an impressive 87.1 rushing yards per game during the regular season. Minnesota also has a pair of very good coverage linebackers in Chad Greenway (99 tackles, 3 INT) and Ben Leber (46 tackles, 2.5 sacks), both of whom will come in handy in combating the Saints' polished short passing game. There is some concern about the secondary, though, as top cover corner Antoine Winfield (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is still bothered by a cracked foot that limited him to nickel duties in the Dallas game. Edwards sustained a slightly sprained knee in the win, although the injury likely won't have an impact on his availability for Sunday's tilt.
Two of the game's most electrifying return men will be on display in Minnesota's Harvin (27.5 avg. on kick returns), who ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns en route to being named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the Saints' Bush (4.8 avg. on punt returns). The Vikings know firsthand of the fourth-year pro's abilities handling punts, since Bush had two special-teams scores in a matchup with Minnesota last season. New Orleans also has a quality kick returner in Courtney Roby (27.1 avg.), who had a 97-yard touchdown in a midseason win over St. Louis, while Minnesota's Darius Reynaud averaged a respectable 10.3 yards on punts for the year.
New Orleans will attempt to keep Harvin in check by utilizing the strong leg of punter Thomas Morstead, who ranked fourth in the league with 26 touchbacks while performing kickoffs. The rookie also acquitted himself well on punts, averaging 43.6 yards per kick while showing good hang time. Minnesota's Chris Kluwe (43.7 avg.) can boom them as well, having averaged 44.4 yards per attempt over his five seasons with the Vikings.
Minnesota is also in good hands in the kicking department, where reliable vet Ryan Longwell missed only twice on 28 field goal tries this season and owns a career 87 percent success rate (107-of-123) in domes. The Saints' Garrett Hartley has shown promise in a brief sample, with the sophomore kicker having made 23-of-25 lifetime three-point attempts in the pros and nailing a 43- yarder in last week's playoff win.
Football fans everywhere have been longing for this showdown since midseason, and with both teams possessing explosive offenses led by premier signal- callers and a wealth of game-changing skill players, this is one of those games that's got the potential to live up to its lofty advance billing. With a jaw-dropping 10 members chosen to this year's Pro Bowl, the Vikings seem to have the edge in overall talent, but it's the Saints' raucous home crowd that may be the biggest factor in determining the final outcome. Add in Brees' exceptionally quick release and decision-making and a running game that should be effective enough to keep the Vikings' ferocious pass rush from going wild, and the day those long-suffering backers on the Bayou have waited nearly a half-century for may just have finally arrived. A determined Favre will make sure Minnesota won't go down easy, but the end result may be a familiar one for both the longtime quarterback and the supporters of his new team.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 30, Vikings 27
01/23 20:40:28 ET