Face-to-Face: Vikings vs. Saints
Bruce Ciskie: Two years ago, the New York Giants came out of practically nowhere to win the title, beating the highly-regarded Cowboys and Packers on the road to get it done, before derailing the unbeaten Patriots. It felt like they were a team of destiny, even though I've never believed in that sort of thing. If there's a team of destiny this year, it's the Vikings, who were downright dominant against Dallas last week. Frankly, I don't see an average defensive team like New Orleans slowing them down enough, no matter how well they may have played last week or how loud the Superdome will be.
The Vikings look more capable of winning a time of possession game, which I think this will end up being. The Saints benefit a ton from it becoming a track meet, and Minnesota doesn't want to let that happen. They're going to make it a physical war, and dare the Saints to beat them at that game.
Tom Mantzouranis: In fairness, the Saints defense is better than average. They may not be world-beaters, and they have issues, but they've held some high-scoring offenses -- the Cardinals, Giants, Patriots -- to underwhelming performances. They've particularly done a good job eliminating teams' top threats and making their opponents reach into their depth to beat them. The Vikings have depth, but I don't think the Saints are so outclassed.
That said, the Saints defense has had a problem with giving up big plays on the ground. That's a legitimate concern with Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, but it won't matter as much if the Saints can get a couple of early touchdowns and a stop or two on defense, which is completely plausible. Let's not forget that the Vikings defense has holes too, once you get past the front four.
Ciskie: The Vikings defense has holes, and they've had some issues generating pressure away from the Metrodome against quarterbacks not named Aaron Rodgers. That is a big part of why they're not playing this game at home.
To me, the biggest problem the Vikings will have is the way the Saints use the entire field against opponents. If their front four can't get pressure, it's going to be a long day for them, and they may want to prepare for that track meet.
I do believe that this team is positioned to make some good things happen on the ground, and that will help slow down the Saints' attack. Where New Orleans can make a difference is where Dallas could not. They have to force turnovers and get the Vikings out of their rhythm offensively.
Oh, and it would help not to cover Sidney Rice with a safety who can't find the football.
Mantzouranis: Yeah, Sidney Rice is going to be a seeing a lot of Jabari Greer, but I think the Saints are going to take their chances with that single coverage (Greer, after all, only allowed one touchdown pass this season, and that was on a play where Roddy White should have been called for pass interference).
The player the Saints are most worried about in this game is likely Percy Harvin. Gregg Williams made a note earlier in the week of how impressed he was by Harvin, mentioning that he polled all his pals coaching in the NFC North for scouting reports, and that every single one of them went out of their way to emphasize the importance of keeping an eye on him. Whether the Vikings can get Harvin away from Tracy Porter and matched up against Randall Gay or not, I'm guessing that corner will be receiving a lot of help from Darren Sharper.
But you're right, the Saints have to win the turnover battle. You can bet that they've talked extensively about the fumbling problems Peterson has had this year and will be attacking the ball when he's got it. It's amazing that we can have a conversation about turnovers without mentioning Brett Favre, but he's been poised all year and I don't see that changing on Sunday. You mentioned them being a team of destiny, and obviously if that term ends up being accurate it's because of the addition of Favre.
Ciskie: Favre has been awesome. You know what I think of the garbage he's pulled over the last three or four years, but this might be the best he's ever played. That's saying something, considering he's 40 and didn't take part in an NFL training camp this year. If anyone had any doubt about the man's Hall of Fame credentials (and you'd have to be pretty biased against him to think that way), they're gone now.
Harvin's headaches notwithstanding, you're right that he has to be a factor. So does Bernard Berrian. They signed him to be a deep threat, and he really hasn't done that, in part because of Rice being awesome. Berrian is the guy Favre will look to on third down because he is good at getting open at the sticks.
If I were a Vikings fan, I'd be extremely concerned about my offensive line. Their protection of Favre hasn't been good on the road, and this will be the toughest environment they've had to protect him in. The Saints are likely to dial up some aggressive plays and try to knock the line and Favre off rhythm a bit. It's been done, so Williams knows he can likely make it happen.
Mantzouranis: Yeah, having Greer and Porter together again has allowed Williams to blitz a lot more, the Vikings offensive line will be under attack. As for the Saints offensive line, I think they're the untold story of this game. Everybody is talking about the Vikings defensive line and how much havoc they can cause, and the matchup between Jared Allen and Jermon Bushrod, but the Saints offensive line has three Pro Bowlers. They are a strong, tough unit.
The truth is, these two teams are in sum about equal in talent level, and they both have the personnel to exploit each others' weaknesses. There's a reason it was essentially a two-team race for the NFC's No. 1 seed from the beginning, because they're both really good. In games like this, you have to look out for one costly mistake, whether it be by a player or coach, or a special teams play that makes the difference (we haven't even mentioned the special teams units, both of which have helped and hurt their teams at times).
Vikings-Saints is the matchup everybody's been expecting since October, and it's only fitting that we get to see a Super Bowl contestant come from that duo.