Preview: Vikings vs. Saints
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (0-0) at New Orleans Saints (0-0).
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Superdome, New Orleans.
Line: Saints by 6.
Coaches: Vikings -- Brad Childress (fifth year, 37-30); Saints -- Sean Payton (fifth year, 42-27).
Series: Vikings lead 20-8.
At stake: It's the season opener for the entire NFL and a rematch of January's NFC championship game, which the Saints won 31-28 in overtime.
Vikings: CB Chris Cook (knee) and DT Jimmy Kennedy (knee) are out. RB Toby Gerhart (knee) and CB Cedric Griffin (knee) are questionable. C John Sullivan (calf), QB Brett Favre (ankle) and S Jamarca Sanford (ankle) are probable. WR Sidney Rice (hip surgery) is on the reserve/physically unable to perform list.
Saints: RB Chris Ivory (knee) and LB Stanley Arnoux (ankle) are out. T Zach Strief (knee) is questionable. MLB Jonathan Vilma (groin), CB Tracy Porter (knee), WR Marques Colston (kidney), S Pierson Prioleau (knee), TE Jimmy Graham (ankle) and DT Anthony Hargrove (knee) are probable.
Five things to watch
Run, run, run: Two of the Vikings' toughest tasks will be containing the Saints' high-octane offense and protecting a passing game that remains a work in progress following QB Brett Favre's late arrival. The surest way to accomplish both is pounding the ball with RB Adrian Peterson. The Saints defense is weak up the middle, playing into the hands of the Vikings' inside-zone scheme. However, the Vikings have a question mark at center -- they'll either start Sullivan, who has missed substantial practice time the past month, or second-year pro Jon Cooper, who lacks Sullivan's size and experience. If the combo blocks aren't tight, Peterson will have to do a lot of the work himself. And that's not a position in which the Vikings want to see their All-Pro back against an opportunistic Saints defense that gave him 4.9 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries in January but also stripped him twice.
Secondary concerns: Outside of LCB Antoine Winfield and FS Madieu Williams, the Vikings secondary is practically hanging by a thread. Special teamer Husain Abdullah -- who mostly worked at free safety with the second string in camp -- is expected to get the start at strong safety. He struggled in his only extended preseason action with the starters Aug. 28 and has been fasting the past month for Ramadan. RCB Lito Sheppard, a starter because of Cook's injury, has lost his deep speed and knows it. In the preseason, he kept dropping out of his pedal and flipping his hips, allowing opponents to do whatever they wanted beneath his coverage. Asher Allen is OK as the nickel, but he's one injury away from being overmatched on the outside -- which would leave the Vikings with only two healthy corners against a Saints offense that regularly spreads three- and four-wide. Even if Griffin is active, it remains to be seen what he can contribute after only three scout-team practices, 7½ months after blowing out a knee.
Bring the heat: The Vikings' front seven -- in particular, the defensive line -- can do plenty to hide the secondary by getting heat on QB Drew Brees. They sacked him only once and officially hit him four times in January, but Brees never got in rhythm against pressure after halftime, completing 7 of 15 passes for 64 yards. RE Jared Allen, who was nearly invisible in the preseason, remains one of the NFL's game changers and has a favorable matchup against Saints LT Jermon Bushrod. LE Ray Edwards gets veteran RT Jon Stinchcomb on the other side. It's strength-against-strength inside, with DTs Kevin Williams and Pat Williams going against one of the league's better interiors.
Passing issue: The Saints' physical punishment of Favre in January is well-documented. Officials will be watching late action closely, but it's still up to the Vikings' protection unit to keep its quarterback upright. Typically up and down in the preseason, LT Bryant McKinnie is the lynchpin. Saints DC Gregg Williams' blitz-heavy scheme also will put pressure on the Vikings' backs and Favre, whose ability to make presnap adjustments and quick throws remains as good as anyone's. The absence of Rice may tempt the Saints to play more single-high safety because they don't have to respect a deep threat opposite WR Bernard Berrian, who was rocky in the preseason. Ball-hawking FS Darren Sharper is out, though, leaving converted CB Malcolm Jenkins in center field. WR Percy Harvin is expected to start as an outside receiver. But against one of the league's better cornerback pairings, Harvin still stands to be at his best in the slot and in space. The Vikings will make sure he gets his touches.
Noise pollution: The Vikings pumped in crowd noise during practice this week to prepare for the Superdome, which is sure to be rocking before kickoff. A pregame concert is scheduled, and Brees will lead fans in a "WHO DAT?" chant around the same time the Saints' championship banner is raised. Several Vikings players plan to wear earplugs, and the offense probably will operate at times on a silent count. The only sure way to quiet the partisan crowd is to strike fast -- but it won't take much to raise the volume again. Managing the environment, controlling emotions and limiting pre-snap penalties on offense all will be important to the Vikings' chances for pulling the upset.
Rice's absence, the passing game's delayed evolution, the cornerback shortage, the wild scene in the Superdome -- they're all reasons it's tough to bet on the Vikings in this game. Childress this week showed his players the championship-game numbers, including the Vikings' edges in first downs (31 to 15), yards (475 to 257) and third-down efficiency (58% to 25%). But that was a Vikings team that had 4½ months to come together after its quarterback's late arrival -- and wasn't missing a key offensive weapon. There's no easing in against Cleveland this year. The Vikings' best shot is to flip the tables on the Saints and win the turnover battle.
Prediction: Saints 34, Vikings 27.