Sailin' down the Mississippi to a town called New Orleans,
They're still talkin' about their card game on that Jackson River Queen.
"I've come to win some money," Gamblin' Willie says,
When the game finally ended up, the whole damn boat was his.
And it's ride, Willie, ride,
Roll, Willie, roll,
Wherever you are a-gamblin' now, nobody really knows.
-- "Rambling, Gambling Willie," Bob Dylan
If you can't make it down to Bourbon Street for Sunday's (5:40 Central) NFC Championship -- then just go for the bourbon. Employ whatever spirits are at your disposal. Win or lose: come 9 o'clock Sunday eve Viking faithful will either be grabbing for something to quench the drought of a 34 year Super Bowl absence, or searching the cabinets for an elixir to dull the pain of another postseason exit for our T.C. sporting charges.
But I'm not just hoping for the former -- I'm expecting it. For my dollars: the Vikings will beat the Saints and play in their first Super Bowl since the 1976 season.
Earlier this week, I reviewed the barren/dusty trophy cases connecting New Orleans and the Twin Cities. While our T.C. holds the longest championship drought for any of the country's four-sport totting markets, the city of New Orleans has never claimed a major pro sporting title. Like Diane Keaton donning a turtleneck: Something's Gotta Give on Sunday, and one team is going to get a ticket punched for a February 7th date in Miami against the winner of Indianapolis vs. NY Jets, contenders for the AFC title.
Sunday marks the Vikings first appearance in an NFC championship game since the season of 2000, while the Saints are making their second trip to the event since '06 -- that year served as New Orleans' debut in an NFC Championship. Historically, the Vikings have dominated the Saints, owning an 18-7 all-time regular season edge and a 2-0 playoff mark against New Orleans.
The showdown pits both the top two seeds in the Conference, and the NFL's two highest scoring teams during the regular season. Yet, neither bunch is above criticism: the Vikings are just 4-4 away from the Dome this year and have beat only one winning team away from Minneapolis (Green Bay in Week 8); the Saints rolled through the first three months of the season and ran their record to 13-0 before losing their final three games. However, even prior to their confounding winter close, the Saints beat non-playoff teams Washington and Atlanta by just six combined points in Weeks 13 & 14, respectively.
The Purple performed beautifully last Sunday in their 34-3 stomping of the Cowboys. Many predicted the Vikings could run their home record to 9-0 on the campaign, but few, if any, suspected that the Purple would sack Tony Romo a season-high six times and hold the potent Cowboy offense to their lowest output since November of 2004. Should the Vikings be able to get to elite Saints' quarterback Drew Brees with equal fervor, the Purple will win Sunday with shirts off and beads aplomb. But a repeat of that d-line domination seems unlikely. Brees' pocket acumen is more-refined than that of Romo, and the New Orleans' frontman has suffered just 20 sacks all season. On just a lone occasion (vs. the Dolphins in Week 7) was he sacked more than four times. Brees led the league this year in both TD's (34) and passer rating (109.6).
Like Dallas, the Saints' offense presents a myriad of potent options. Wideouts Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem present a combined 166 catches, 20 touchdowns grabs and 2,600 aerial yards. All three sport at least 11 receptions of 20+ yards and each receiver averages a minimum of 15.3 yards per catch. The image of Brees picking apart the Vikings' 19-ranked pass defense with these dudes and tight end Jeremy Shockey can freak one's mind. Sound tackling from the Purple linebackers and d-backfield will prove key: none of these guys ranked in the NFL's top-33 in yards after catch.
The New Orleans backfield finished '09 charting 6th-best in the league in rushing with over 130 yards per; however from an individual standpoint each of them would likely offer a girlish squeal standing beside Adrian Peterson. Between the four backs we'll see on Sunday -- Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, Reggie Bush and Lynell Hamilton -- they sport just two 100-yard efforts among them, and none have reached the century mark since Thomas rolled the Bills for 126 way back in Week 3. This isn't to suggest a dearth of talent at the position, but any one of these guys grinding the 2nd-ranked Viking rush defense seems highly unlikely.
That goes for Bush as well. Just as Reggie scorched the Vikings for two punt returns for TD in the Purple's eventual 30-27 win in Week 5 of last season, Bush appeared in his Heisman-reincarnate form last week against the Cardinals. Against Arizona, Bush looked phenomenal: accruing 84 rush yards and a ground score, numbers well-complimented by three punt returns for 109 yards including an 83-yard TD in which the guy moved with blurring acceleration.
Look for real time from Bush on Sunday. Those grounds yards serve as his highest total since October of '07, and the return clip stand as the second-most of his career after his 176-yard performance against the Purple last season. The return score versus 'Zona was his first of the season and Bush has only one 100-yard rush game in his entire, 55-game career -- that came in his rookie season of 2006.
For the Purple, Favre enters his fifth career NFC title game set to oppose a Saints' defense that ranked 26th in the league against the pass this season and allowed at least 244 air yards on eight occasions. It's true that the New Orleans defensive backfield suffered through injuries this year and has recently welcomed back both Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. Former Viking Darren Sharper's nine interceptions tied for the NFL lead and readily contributed to the Saints' 26 picks on the year -- good for third in the league. Look for Greer to play opposite from Sidney Rice, creating a tough match-up for the Viking receiver. New Orleans, in part because of those injuries, had mixed results against some of the league's top wideouts this season. The polarity is evidenced in the 100-yard games they allowed to DeSean Jackson, Roddy White (first game) and Miles Austin, compared to the fewer than 70 yards they allowed to Steve Smith (Giants), Steve Smith (Panthers), Randy Moss, Wes Welker and in their second game against White.
Of more sanguine note for the Purple: a wealth of the 26 picks came as a result of New Orleans' offense forcing opponents to throw at length in the second half of games -- of the 15 combined picks claimed by Sharper, Porter and Greer, 11 came in the latter half of games. What's also well-worthy of mention is that the Saints continually struggled with opponent's secondary receiving options. Take a gander at these names that all had at least four catches versus the Saints this year: Bryant Johnson, Jason Avant, Josh Reed, Hakeem Nicks, Greg Camarillo, Michael Jenkins, Dwayne Jarrett, Brandon Gibson and Sam Aiken. Those numbers portend strong games for either/both Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian. Harvin was held out of practice on Thursday (migraines), and his availability will be monitored closely herein as the weekend moves in.
The Saints defensive struggles extend to the ground as well. They concluded '09 as the league's 21st ranked rush unit and have allowed a crazy 600 ground yards in their last four games, including their Divisional win over the Cardinals. While their rush defense had some early-season success against 1,000-yard backs Fred Davis and Thomas Jones, they were readily torched in the latter half of the year versus 1,000-yard runners Ricky Williams, DeAngelo Williams, Steven Jackson and Jonathan Stewart. A.P. appeared to be running with cruel intent last week against the Cowboys, but still managed just 63 yards on 26 carries (2.4 per). The output (or lack thereof) marked Peterson's eighth consecutive game below the century mark, a stretch in which he hasn't busted out a carry of more than 23 yards. Should A.P. again be afforded 20+ carries, the Vikings' time-of-possession and play action sell will no doubt be readily behooved by a little more juice from that squeeze.
Continued reasons to favor the Purple's chances in the showdown are gathered via special teams. New Orleans ranked 29th and a league-worst 32nd covering kickoffs and punts, respectively. Strong field position for the Purple will only enhance Favre's ability to dissect. In addition, Viking kicker Ryan Longwell has booted nearly as many playoff field goals (17) as Saints' greenleg Garrett Hartley has made in his brief career (23, including last week).
The Voodoo witches can focus on the form that is Favre this weekend, but come late Sunday it's all those little pins of puncture that will fell their Saints. It's without debate that the Purple has a history wrought with both cursing & curse -- but I'm looking for them to find more success with the finite factors in what should prove a fine battle this weekend. Come February the 7th, the Vikings will have a shot at giving the Twin Cities our first title in 20 years.
New Orleans 24