FanHouse Preview: Vikings at Saints
Think about it: after the Saints lost their first game of the season to Dallas and stumbled their way into the playoffs by not scoring more than 20 points in three straight L's to close out the season, the entire world left them for dead. The eulogy was exacerbated by Tim Hightower's 80-yard touchdown run on the Cardinals first play from scrimmage
in last week's divisional round.
And then, within about 15 minutes of football time, Reggie Bush started looking like he was always supposed to, Drew Brees was carving up the Cards' D, and the Saints' blitz packages were swarming Arizona. Just like that, New Orleans looked once again like a team worthy of a Super Bowl run.
Minnesota is no different; December was a cold, unkind month to Brett Favre -- and even when he staved off a more-picks-than-TDs month by torching the Bears and Giants for six touchdowns in two games, everyone still said, "Well, it's the Bears and Giants."
The Cowboys are clearly not either one of those teams and played well enough in the month of the season that the Vikes were barely favored for their divisional game (2 1/2, despite being at home).
Favre proceeded to "Get His Breesus on" and destroyed the 'Boys, going a very un-Favre-like 15 of 24 for 234 yards and four touchdowns.
So, with our understanding of how the NFC really works (which is to say, exactly like we thought it did prior to week 14), what happens next?
Three Key Questions
1. Will the real Adrian Peterson please stand up? All late-90's, totally uncool, white-rapper, semi-jokes aside ... seriously, where has All Day been? Were it not for the consistency of his touchdowns -- which seemingly occur only because Sidney Rice somehow manages to end up being down on the 1-yard line EVERY TIME -- he's had a relatively pedestrian (it's all relative) year. 1,300 yards and 4.4 isn't bad, of course, but take out two games against Detroit and one against Cleveland and, well, he's really only got one massive game.
More disconcerting is that he hasn't 100 yards in a game since Week 10. I mention all of this because the notion of the Vikings keeping the same pace as the Saints offensively seems silly; in a perfect world, they want as much time of possession as possible, in order to keep their defense fresh and keep Brees off the field. If Peterson isn't performing like Peterson should, that becomes infinitely more difficult.
2. Will Percy Harvin and Jeremy Shockey play? Both Harvin and Shockey provide an additional shade of depth to their respective offenses. Shockey, obviously, is a different sort of target than the slew of wideouts that Brees would otherwise target -- covering him with a linebacker is clearly difficult. Harvin is the generically termed "X-Factor," who gives the Vikes a dangerous punt and kick returner and a weapon that can be utilized all over the field. One or both being absent significantly alters everyone's game plans.
3. Which version of Reggie Bush will step on the field? Will it be the guy who demolished the Vikings last year during Monday Night Football? (This is the same Bush that showed up last week against the Cardinals, if that wasn't obvious.) Or will it be the Reggie Bush that's inspired thousands of mea culpas from draftniks around the world?
Now, Minnesota actually ranks third on Football Outsiders' special teams rankings (although only 14th weighted) -- but that's mostly because they rank second in FG accuracy and kick returns. When it comes to punts -- measured in net yardage -- they sport a 0.5 DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). Also influential: Courtney Roby, as the Vikes rock a -6.3 DVOA on kickoff returns, sixth-worst in the league, 21st in the NFL. But what the mess does all this crazy "football science" mean? Basically this: the Vikes' special teams containment is worse than the Cardinals, so Bush (and Roby) has a chance to be a huge difference-maker one more time.
Player in the Spotlight: Favre. The Vikings' offensive line is banged up, Peterson, as noted above, hasn't been running well in recent weeks and, well, when you're talking about any game that features Brett Favre, Brett Favre is going to Favre the Favre-light from Favreyone.
Vikings' Path to Victory: Stop Drew Brees! No seriously, that would be nice, but it's probably not happening. Secretly, the Vikes need to stop the run -- the Saints, believe it or not, ran the ball more times for more yardage and more yards per game (funny how that last one works out, huh?) during the regular season than the Vikings did. If Minnesota can contain the Saints' rushing attack, they disrupt Sean Payton's game plan and change how the Saints offense works. Weird, but true.
Additionally, the Vikes need to grow up and pound the rock -- the Saints' pass defense is much improved this year (don't let the YPG ranking fool you), but they still have trouble containing the run. If you want to see a fanbase really, really angry at a coach that they already disliked, then you should be rooting for 40 passes out of Favre.
Saints' Path to Victory: Blitz the tar out of Favre. That shouldn't be an issue with the way that Gregg Williams runs his defense anyway, but when you start adding in the offensive line health issues that the Vikings have and the noise that will be rolling through the Superdome, well, pressure on Favre just seems like the kind of thing that could lead to picks. And picks lead to points.
Also worth noting here: the Saints have to stop the run. If Peterson gashes them for big yardage, they can certainly answer, but playing from behind makes their job a lot harder.
Prediction: Since using the word "rout" is probably just dumb at this point (thanks, Nate Kaeding), how does "a decisive victory" for the Saints sound? This game is the later matchup, meaning the Superdome is going to be absolutely out of control. Couple that with the way that the Saints' various strengths mesh with the Vikings' weaknesses and a steadfast belief that the football gods aren't evil enough to give us two weeks of Favremania in Miami, and it becomes easy: Saints 35, Vikings 24