It’s finally here. The end of the long nightmarish offseason for the Minnesota Vikings. Can you remember a longer one? (Oh, after 1998 and 2001 come to mind–and then there was the 1970s . . . but not sure if they can match this one.) The Vikings meet the New Orleans Saints in the NFL Kickoff game Thursday night and few season openers have compared in the build-up to this one.
The Saints will raise a banner, and then the fans will raise the roof, while the Vikings will seethe on the sidelines–still recalling the number of times they put the ball on the Superdome turf and fumbled away a trip to the Super Bowl. The Vikings may not quite be ready for this game because of injuries and such this training camp, but for the players who will take the field, there will no more motivation necessary to get them up for it emotionally.
Once they kick off the ball, this game will be a war. Both defenses will be flying after the opposing team’s quarterback–one team by design and the other for payback.
For the Vikings, who didn’t record a sack on Saints QB Drew Brees last time they played a meaningful game, they need to be judicious with their all-out attack. Brees gets rid of the ball quick, and if he continues to do so against the Purple, the depleted defensive backfield may be in for a long night.
There is talk of injured cornerback Cedric Griffin returning to get some reps and help out this unit that is thin due to the trade of Benny Sapp and injury to Chris Cook. But that may be wishful thinking–and a risky plan. If Griffin isn’t up to it, Brees will exploit him all night.
Then again, for the Saints, it will have to be Brees who shines, as the Vikings defensive line is healthy and fired up to stop the run. Pressure on the Super Bowl MVP will be tantamount for Minnesota.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Vikings concerns are well known. It’s unfortunate on opening night to be talking about any kind of injury or players missing, but the Vikings receiving corps is in no better shape than the defensive backfield. Sidney Rice is gone and Percy Harvin has missed most of camp. Greg Lewis will fill in, and Greg Camarillo just might be Brett Favre’s go-to guy.
Favre is the biggest question mark (outside the Vikings offensive line): How sharp will he be after just two-and-half quarters of football and less than a month in camp? Favre is a gamer; Favre knows the offense; Favre knows where to attack this team. But Favre is 40 years old and took a while to hit his stride last season. He’s a little gimpy on that ankle, and the Gregg Williams defense will be coming after him. Plus, he said this to Sirius NFL Radio:
“I would have to give the edge to the Saints, first of all, as far as first game, where are you from a team standpoint overall as far as chemistry and things of that nature? Where are you at this point, which obviously is the first game of the season? I would give the nod to the Saints just in that regard. They’re obviously a good football team either way. Those guys, it doesn’t seem like they’ve had a lot of injuries. There really hasn’t been any change, at least from an offensive standpoint, to those guys.
“Where you look at us in preseason, not much to go off of and really not a whole lot different than last year. That just adds to it. Last year we opened up at Cleveland. I had no clue what to expect from our team, from myself, but it sure was made a lot easier by handing the ball to Adrian [Peterson] that game. I think he rushed for roughly 180 yards. I had the best seat in the house, didn’t have to do too much, was never really asked to make a big play. And that was a good way to ease into it.”
It may have to be again. The most important factor will be a tough offensive line opening up holes for Peterson. AP appears more ready than anyone for this game to start. He watched the Saints celebration from the tunnel last January and seared the images in his mind. Give him the ball again and again. Pound it down the Saints’ throats and neutralize the blitzes on Favre. And then when they start stacking the line to stop AP, let Favre loose with some play-action.
If the offensive lines needs help by keeping tight ends in to block, so be it. Favre will find the open man if given the time.
Will John Sullivan start at center? He is listed as probable for the game. What kind of condition will he be in? Certainly, Jon Cooper and maybe even Anthony Herrera will have to spell him as he has missed the entire preseason with a calf injury. Having him back will bring some normalcy–but it needs to bring Favre some protection.
Bernard Berrian will be returning punts, while Harvin will be standing back in the endzone catching kickoffs as the Saints try to keep him from returning anything. Those two are exciting from an explosive standpoint for the Vikings, but the inherent risk is having your starting wide receivers exposed to New Orleans special teamers with a head of steam. The receiving corps is not deep enough to sustain an injury to either one. But big runbacks from either will help settle this crowd that hasn’t stop celebrating since February.
The Saints have some personnel concerns, although things are looking up for them. Starting cornerback Tracy Porter, who made a pretty big interception against the Vikes last season, has been hampered by knee soreness, but the Saints released his replacement, so Porter looks good to go. Starting linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was hurt in preseason, is listed as probable, as well.
Truth be told, anyone not in traction on both teams will want to get out on the field for this one. E.J. Henderson has described in the past how painful it was watching the NFC Championship game on television last season. Expect a big game out of him.
There will be a lot of emotion on both sides of the field on Thursday, it’s just that the Vikings emotion will be tinged with a little anger. That may be enough to put them over the top in a game that will resemble last year’s in pace. The Vikings will again be staunch on defense, and if they don’t have to play on too many short fields due to turnovers or poor special team coverage, will keep the offense in the game all night long. The score will be the same as last year–31-28–except this time, Ryan Longwell gets to kick that game winning field goal for Minnesota.