Minnesota Vikings

NFC Championship Game Preview: When Drew Met Brett

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The Superdome hosts its first ever NFC Championship game Sunday night when the Vikings roll into New Orleans to face the Saints. While Brett Favre and Drew Brees will get loads of attention, there a few other factors that will likely determine who goes to the Miami

Sunday, January 24 @ 6:40pm – #2 Minnesota Vikings at #1 New Orleans Saints

The Skinny: After burying the defending NFC champion Arizona Cardinals last week, the Saints take on their biggest challenge of the season when the Minnesota Vikings come to town. The city of New Orleans is hoping for the Saints’ first ever trip to the Super Bowl; while those crazies from Minnesota are hoping the Vikings can reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1976 season.

New Orleans X-Factor: Reggie Bush and the New Orleans run game. There is a pretty simple formula related to New Orleans winning. If a team runs on the Vikings to some degree, they are probably going to win the game. Minnesota ranks second in the NFL against the run but during their late season malaise in December they didn’t play like it.

The Vikings allowed four straight opponents to break the 100 yard barrier in December and lost three of them. Their lone win came against the offensively challenged Cincinnati Bengals.

That’s where Reggie Bush and company come into play. The Saints throw a myriad of options at the opponent including Bush, Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Lynell Hamilton. During ’09, the Saints ranked 6th in rushing while Brees and the passing game got most of the pub. When the Saints struggled during the regular season, it was some way related to an inability to run.

During four games in ’09, they did not crack the 100 yard barrier on the ground. While they went 3-1 over that stretch, those matchups either featured close outcomes or the Saints playing from behind.

vs. Carolina               84 yards      30-20 (W)

@ Washington          55 yards      33-30 (OT-W)

@ Atlanta                   95 yards      26-23  (W)

vs. Dallas                    65 yards       24-17 (L)

If Minnesota allows New Orleans to duplicate its 171 yard rushing effort from a week ago in the divisional round, they’ll give Favre a headstart on that annual retirement discussion.

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Minnesota X-Factor: Brett Favre and turnovers. Over two decades ago, Superstar Billy Graham asked a very important question during an interview. “How you gonna deal with the man of steel?” That’s the same question Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams spent all week trying to answer. The answer is likely to lie with the Minnesota offensive line. Of the remaining four quarterbacks, Favre has taken the most sacks (34). Whether they use blitzing or conventional means, knocking Favre out of his comfort zone is a necessity for victory.

Another angle is the Favre turnover factor. The gunslinger deluxe has a reputation for giving the opponent a few opportunities. In fact, you’d have to go back to the 1997 postseason to find the last time he posted consecutive playoff starts with a passer rating of 90 and above.

How he responds in a road playoff situation should be quite intriguing amidst the Superdome’s pandemonium and chaos. The last postseason road game for Favre? The infamous 4th and 26 contest versus the Eagles in the ’03 playoffs.

On Sunday, Favre will face quite a challenge from the Saints. New Orleans ranks 26th against the pass but opposing quarterbacks have posted a composite quarterback rating of 68.6. Only the Jets and Bills did a better job facing quarterbacks this season.

With Favre, you’re going to know pretty early what direction the game is going in. As his postseason resume and performances in losing efforts this season suggests, he either has it or he doesn’t.

Synopsis: There are so many strategy plot points in this game that make it very fascinating. Can the Minnesota front four get to Drew Brees? Will the Vikes run block for Adrian Peterson? Does the Minnesota secondary stand a chance against the New Orleans receiving corps? Will Jabari Greer continue his Revislike campaign against Sidney Rice?

All of these will be pivotal points at one time or another. Then of course, there is the factor of home-field advantage. After watching the Tampa Bay Bucs win the NFC in the final game of Veterans Stadium back in 2003, I don’t count home-field as a true blue game changing factor…except for the game’s start. The Vikings must manage the first quarter effectively. The fans will be jacked and the last thing the Vikings need is an early turnover that could subsequently cause an avalanche of offense for the Saints.

Also, there are two major wild cards in this game on the Minnesota side. The Vikings are banged up with injuries along the defensive line to Ray Edwards and Kevin Williams. Meanwhile, Percy Harvin is suffering once more from migraine headaches. While his status was up in the air, he did make the trip to New Orleans and does appear at the moment to be on track to play.

The other issue in this game could be special teams. Bush had a punt return for a score last week versus Arizona and ran back two on the Vikings in a loss during the ’08 season. They can’t allow him to pop him anything big.

Both teams sport questionable kick coverage units otherwise. Thus, a big return could be in the offering.

Overall, this is an even matchup. I wrote back in the NFC playoff preview that the winner of the Minnesota/Dallas game was headed to the Super Bowl. While chalk continues to breathe fire mostly during the playoffs, I’m going to stay the course with Minnesota. Number one seeds have not faced in a Super Bowl since edition XXVIII. I don’t think that streak will end.

PREDICTION: MINNESOTA 30, NEW ORLEANS 27

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