NFC Championship Preview (prediction at the bottom)
How We Got Here:
The two best teams for most of the year in the NFC meet in the title game. There's something to be said for that. How many #1 vs #2 matchups have we seen in the conference title games in the past decade? Not enough in my opinion. They give us compelling matchups with fan bases that have had hope since the season started. Everyone believes it's their year and that their team can win it all but some teams have given their fans hope since September (basically the opposite of Dallas or the Jets, who gained momentum late in the season and were hoping to ride it to the Super Bowl). New Orleans started the season 13-0, blowing out good teams in the first half of the season and showing that they were the best team in football (blowouts of NYG when they were 5-0 and NE on MNF shows this is a big game team). They didn't play as well in the second half of the season, losing their last 3 games. Last week, the "old" Saints showed up and nearly blew the roof off of the Superdome with their demolishing of the defending NFC Champs. The Saints have looked unbeatable at times with an offense that is near unstoppable when it's clicking. They'll host this game as well, which could make the difference. For the Vikings, it all comes down to bad QB play last season. Making Brett Favre a priority in the offseason seemed peculiar but any real Vikings fan can't complain about the results. Minnesota is a game away from playing in their fifth Super Bowl (0-4 in the other four) and is coming off their own blowout of a hot team. So the best teams in the NFC will play a 60 minute game for the right to go represent the NFC & their city in the Super Bowl.
New Orleans Offense:
By far, the best of the four units. They were on pace to challenge the single-season scoring record for most of the season and showed last week that they have enough play-makers to give any defense matchup nightmares. The emergence of Reggie Bush could be the X-Factor again this week if he can create big plays in space (which is the only time he's dangerous). The receiving core of Colston, Meachem, Henderson & Moore is as dangerous as any with my personal pick for MVP (Brees) at QB. Jeremy Shockey, should he get over his injury woes, is another problem that one of Minnesota's LB's will have to deal with. Minnesota may have to employ a ball control offense once they realize that stopping this offense is near impossible. One unknown factor is how healthy starting RB Pierre Thomas is. He isn't a gamebreaker like Bush but he provides good runs to keep drives going. New Orleans has to have some resemblance of a running game to win this one. They can't afford to have Brees taking 5-7 step drops every play because Minnesota's talented D-Line will get to the QB at some point. This is where Bush may be most effective. The short passes and occasional carries could keep the Vikings defense off balance, giving Brees the opportunity to make big plays downfield to the receivers. New Orleans needs to pick up first downs and keep the Vikings defense on the field. Against a talented defense, they may not get their big plays as often. They'll need to be able to move the ball 10 yards at a time, exploiting the many mismatches they can cause any defense.
The health of Ray Edwards is in question here, causing me to believe he won't have as effective a game as he did last week. New Orleans' offensive line isn't great but Brees gets rid of the ball quick enough so that they don't look too bad in pass protection. Jared Allen is the big name on the defensive line and could have a big game here if the Saints don't help with double teams. The "Williams" wall in the middle of the DL can shut down any running game but hasn't had a good a year as in the past few years. If they can render Thomas & Bush useless in the run game, they can tee up the pass rush to get to Brees or at least cause him to rid of the ball earlier than he'd like. The Vikings LB core has been hit with a big injury, losing EJ Henderson and replacing him with Jasper Brinkley. That matchup has been exploited by other teams but Dallas wasn't able to do it last week. Don't underestimate Sean Payton's ability to pick one player on the opposing defense to pick on. Brinkley might be that guy this week. The defensive backs for Minnesota are strong, aggressive and will hit you off the line of scrimmage. One of the unknown factors is how the NO receivers will deal with this. Can they get down the field to make the plays or will the Minnesota defense get to Brees before the Saints WR's can get there? How the Vikings defend Shockey/any other NO TE will be another key. If the Vikings are to win this game, they have to keep it lower scoring than the Saints would like it to be . A 24-20 game plays into the hands of the Vikings while a game in the 30's or even 40's spells doom for Minnesota. I just don't think their going to score that many points. We should be able to see early though if the Vikings defense can keep up with the Saints explosive offense.
Two huge names on this offense will determine what happens on Sunday. Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson need to both avoid making mistakes (Favre INT's & Peterson fumbles) to continue the season for the Vikings. Neither has had a bad turnover game in awhile so it seems like one of them could be due to let the Vikings down. Chester Taylor gets some work in the backfield and could be big in the short passing game if the Vikings receivers find trouble getting open. Percy Harvin (a more explosive Reggie Bush....no I don't mean faster, I mean he catches the ball better downfield, allowing the Vikings to line him up in more sets than Bush) is a question mark once again with migraines. The Vikings need to hit big plays though. The Superdome will be a deafening place on Sunday so it's to the Vikings advantage to score early and quiet down the fans. If their offensive line (ridiculed before last week but I told you they'd hold up against Dallas' talented pass rushers) can get the calls in, they should be able to move the ball against the Saints defense. Favre may have trouble trying to audible at the line of scrimmage so it'd be to the Saints Defense's advantage to show multiple looks at the line of scrimmage and try to confuse the Vikings. The pass rushes aren't nearly as talented as Dallas so I think the Vikings could find time for Favre to throw the ball. Sidney Rice had a big game last week (a big year really) but he could be negated by Jabari Greer. Greer is fresh after being injured for awhile and looked great last week. For the Vikings, it will come down to the ability to run the ball. If Peterson can get 100-150 yards on the ground, they should take this game easily. If he looks like the AD we've seen most of this year, the Vikings will put the game on the shoulders of Favre and the receivers.
New Orleans Defense:
No one gave the Saints defense much of a chance to stop Arizona last week and they walked away from that one with an impressive 14 points given up. The Saints stopped the Cards run game cold and used an early lead to their advantage, forcing the Cards to throw on most plays and play one-dimensional football. The same formula applies here.....get a lead early, get the crowd into the game even more and rely on the Vikings going one dimensional. New Orleans has to get pressure on Favre though....something that Dallas didn't do. I can't imagine the Saints having as much as success stopping AD as they did with the Cards backs. Other than the long Hightower run, the Saints defense played a great game. They didn't allow the Cards to find any comfort for Warner and that'll be the key to beating Minnesota. New Orleans need to stop the big play, forcing Favre to move the ball meticulously downfield. The longer the Saints can stay ahead or in the game, they will always have the crowd to rely on to help out their defense. The 12th man will be in full effect and that could be the difference in a close game.
Prediction: New Orleans(-3.5) 34, Minnesota 17
This will be the perfect formula for the the Saints.....loud crowd, early lead, decent running game and mismatches all over the field. The only team that can beat the Saints right now is the Saints. With them at home, I can't see the Vikings going in and getting it done. Minnesota has looked composed at home but stuggled at times on the road this year. Adrian Peterson hasn't had much success against 8 men in the box looks that most teams have thrown at Minnesota. This has been the main reason that Favre and the Vikings passing game has been so effective. Unless Peterson & the offensive line can have a vintage performance, the Vikings will have a hard time scoring. New Orleans' offense is nearly unstoppable when clicking and their coming in with all the confidence in the world. They have homefield advantage (it is THAT important in the case of dome teams.....) and should use the 12th man to get a few false starts out of the Vikings offensive line. People may want to see the Favre-Manning Super Bowl but they should be happy if it's Manning-Brees. Drew Brees has had a great year, establishing him as one of the top QB's in the league in the past 5 years. New Orleans gets up 14-0 early, runs the ball, controls the clock and keeps their offense on the field enough to frustrate Favre into gunslinger mode and goes into the half up 24-7. The Vikings cut it to 24-14 but the Saints put away the Vikings with a big INT TD to go up 31-14 in the 3rd quarter to clinch the game.