Vikings, Saints battle in Big Easy

By: Jimmy Sirody | Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sean Payton and the Saints are a win away from their first Super Bowl trip.

The Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints are two tortured franchises.

New Orleans is one of only five teams never to reach a Super Bowl. This is the closest the Saints have ever been, when they host an NFC championship game for the first time on Sunday as four-point favorites.

Minnesota went to the Super Bowl four times in the 60s and 70s and lost every one of them, and hasn’t been back in 33 years.

New Orleans has the top-ranked offense in the NFL, the Vikings the fifth, which means the favorite should be the team with the better defense. That would be Minnesota, which sent Tony Romo into a tailspin with six sacks last Sunday. But that was at the Metrodome, where crowd noise helps the Vikings immensely.

This game will be played at the Superdome, and that is no small detail. It is the loudest place in the NFL and provides a distinct home-field advantage for the Saints. Getting off to a fast start and taking the crowd out of the game would be huge for Minnesota.

As well as the Vikings played last Sunday, remember that they were at the Metrodome, where they went 9-0, averaged 32.9 points a game and never scored fewer than 27. They averaged 10-plus points a game more than they scored on the road, where they were 4-4.

Brett Favre expected this season to be one where he primarily handed the ball off to Adrian Peterson and threw it maybe 15 times per game. However he hasn’t just been wheeled along for the ride to his fifth career NFC championship game.

Favre has led Minnesota with a body and arm that didn’t seem like they had anything left with the New York Jets a year ago.

No playoff quarterback is playing as well as Favre, who’s thrown for 25 touchdowns compared to just five turnovers since Week 8.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees moved the ball at will against a depleted Arizona secondary and might do the same against Minnesota’s average cover men. Brees has a ton of weapons at his disposal, and no other team in the league uses a variety of personnel groupings and formations as the Saints.

Although the Vikings are tremendous along the defensive line, their secondary is a true liability. They did sack Tony Romo six times in the divisional round and tormented him the entire game. But Brees gets the ball out incredibly quick, and displays great composure and poise.

Brees wasn’t sacked last week and only three teams allowed fewer sacks than New Orleans. But the Saints did have problems against the Dallas pass rush in their Week 15 loss and Minnesota led the NFL in sacks this season.

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New Orleans coach Sean Payton has been on fire as a game-planner and play-caller this season. Now he’ll be matching wits with one of the most intimidating and balanced defenses the Saints have faced.

The New Orleans defense is the opposite of Minnesota’s in that its playmakers are in the secondary. Besides Will Smith, there isn’t a top-flight pass rusher in the Saints’ front seven.

Limiting the Cardinals to 14 points after they had scored 51 against Green Bay reinforced to the Saints that they entertain with offense but win huge playoff games with defense.

Thanks to renewed health, the New Orleans secondary is playing at a high-level once again. With Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter back at full strength, there will be few easy throws for Favre.

The Saints run defense is suspect. But amazingly, so is Peterson’s production of late. In a hostile environment with extreme crowd noise against a defense that allowed 4.5 yards per rush, Peterson’s role is instrumental.

Minnesota owns a 4-0 SU and ATS edge in the head-to-head series. The Vikings prevailed in the Big Easy last season, 30-27. But in that game, Reggie Bush returned two punts for touchdowns and probably would have run back a third had he not slipped.

Most offshore books opened New Orleans as 4 ½-point favorites with that figure down a half- to full-point at most shops.  The ‘total’ started at 54 but has also dropped to 53 or even 52 ½ in some cases.

FOX will air the contest from the Superdome beginning at 3:40 p.m. (PT)

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