Preview: Top-ranked Saints offense could give Vikings 'D' a bloodbath
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Who: New Orleans Saints (10-3) at Minnesota Vikings (2-11).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome (capacity: 64,111), Minneapolis.
Line: Saints by 7½.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st year, 5-14). Saints -- Sean Payton (6th year, 65-38).
Series: Vikings lead 20-9-0, including 12-2 at home.
Last meeting: Drew Brees completed 27 of 36 passes for 237 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings' depleted secondary and the Saints escaped with a 14-9 victory in the NFC championship game rematch on Sept. 9, 2010.
At stake: The Saints are tied with San Francisco for the second-best record in the NFC, and only one of them will get a first-round bye along with unbeaten Green Bay. The Vikings are just trying to escape a five-game losing skid that has them in danger of finishing with the worst record in franchise history.
Vikings: CB Chris Cook (not injury related) is out. WR Greg Camarillo (concussion), MLB E.J. Henderson (shoulder), S Jarrad Page (hip), HB Adrian Peterson (ankle), CB Asher Allen (shoulder), QB Christian Ponder (hip) and DT Letroy Guion (ankle) are probable.
Saints: HB Mark Ingram (toe) and LB Jonathan Casillas (knee) are out. MLB Jonathan Vilma (knee) and DE Turk McBride (ankle) are questionable. CB Tracy Porter (wrist), DT Sedrick Ellis (hamstring), TE Jimmy Graham (back) and LB Scott Shanle (shoulder) are probable.
Five things to watch
Peterson's load: After missing three games and most of another with a high ankle sprain, Peterson is expected to be back in the lineup. But it remains to be seen how much work the Vikings are willing to give their franchise player after such a long layoff. The smart money says Peterson and HB Toby Gerhart will split the work. Peterson still has statistical goals in mind, though -- he needs another 328 rushing yards to reach the 1,200-yard mark for the fifth straight season -- and coaches know that if he's in uniform, he'll want to be on the field as much as possible. How he performs early on figures to dictate his action.
Looking out for No. 1: Another week, another combination in the secondary for the Vikings, who will need their best performance all season to slow down the NFL's top-ranked offense. Benched a week ago, CB Cedric Griffin might not even be active. Instead, Allen and CB Benny Sapp are expected to start at the outside cornerback positions, with CB Marcus Sherels handling the slot in nickel. Even rookie CB Brandon Burton might have a better chance for action than Griffin, whose lack of explosion after two knee reconstructions has been compounded by his refusal to play techniques the coaches ask. Brees leads the NFL in passing yards (4,368) and ranks third in passer rating (105.9) and touchdown passes (32). Payton is one of the smartest offensive coaches in football. This has all the makings of a bloodbath, no matter how serviceably the Vikings patched things together after Griffin's exit last week at Detroit.
Mismatch alert: Compounding the Vikings' challenge is the fact the Saints' two leading receivers aren't even a part of their deep receiver group. Two players they'll have to key on are TE Jimmy Graham and HB Darren Sproles, who already have combined for 154 catches, 1,681 yards and 12 touchdowns. Graham (6-6, 259) can outrun linebackers, can outmuscle defensive backs and has 18 more targets than any other tight end in the NFL. Sproles (5-6, 181) spends plenty of time and in the slot, meaning the Vikings will have to decide whether to counter with another defensive back anytime he's on the field. They actually had some success with by playing more man coverage in the second half against the Lions and it wouldn't be a total surprise if they try it again, personnel shortages notwithstanding. But sitting back in Cover-2 seems the more logical approach to start.
On guard: The Vikings locked up one of their offensive linemen for the long haul on Saturday, signing C John Sullivan to a five-year, $25 million contract. They know LT Charlie Johnson isn't the answer at left tackle and they're willing to keep going through the growth process with RT Phil Loadholt. The most pressing questions are at guard, where declining LG Steve Hutchinson has been wildly inconsistent at age 34 and RG Anthony Herrera has been slowed by knee trouble again at age 31. The Vikings could move on at both spots next season if they feel rookie Brandon Fusco is ready to start and they add someone on the blindside to let Johnson move inside to guard. The next three games probably won't make or break either decision, but consider it a closing argument.
Ponder this: No one has more to prove in these final three games than Ponder, who has seven turnovers in his past two starts combined and was benched in the third quarter of the Detroit game. It was coaches' fault for starting him against the Lions despite limited practice time, and by no means is this year's stretch run a referendum on his young career. Belief in Ponder remains strong within the building, his supporting cast is limited and no one believes a quarterback hits his stride in half a season. But Ponder needs to correct some of the mistakes he's making to put a better taste in everyone's mouths for the offseason -- none more important than his own.
Does this really merit an explanation anymore?
Prediction: Saints 41, Vikings 24.