NFL: Vikings vs. Saints: the key matchups
By BARRY WILNER
AP Football Writer
Matchups for the NFC championship game between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints at the Louisiana Superdome.
When the Vikings have the ball
Feeding All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson (28) the ball always is a good idea, particularly against a New Orleans defense that ranked 21st against the run. Then again, with the way QB Brett Favre (4) played against Dallas last week — and the spotty performances of the Saints against the pass — maybe the 40-year-old from neighboring Mississippi will have his own aerial Mardi Gras.
The Saints struggled without top cover cornerback Jabari Greer (32), but he’s healthy now. Safety Darren Sharper (42), the ball-hawking All-Pro and longtime confidant of Favre’s, tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions and ran back three for scores. His frequent matchups with TE Visanthe Shiancoe (81) will be worth watching.
New Orleans’ active linebackers, particularly Jonathan Vilma (51) and Scott Fujita (55), will be the keys to the Saints’ run defense. If Peterson consistently is breaking off solid gains — or especially long ones — it will draw Sharper, Roman Harper (41) and other DBs closer to the line. Favre would love to see that, because his favorite targets, Sidney Rice (18) and Offensive Rookie of the Year Percy Harvin (12), would get less attention.
Of course, the Saints had 26 interceptions and 39 takeaways, and they might need a few Sunday. They also are a decent sacks team, led by DE Will Smith (91), who had 13, and the Vikings did allow 34; Dallas got three last week.
When the Saints have the ball
Drew Brees (9) is as accurate a passer as the league has seen, and he loves the offensive scheme of coach Sean Payton. Brees has a number of options on every passing play, and the running game is solid, if not spectacular.
Uh, make that solid with Pierre Thomas (23) and Mike Bell (21), but spectacular when Reggie Bush (25) plays the way he did against Arizona in the divisional round. Finally recovered from knee woes, Bush was a difference maker last week, and he had a brilliant performance against Minnesota in the past.
New Orleans would like to establish something on the ground to help negate Minnesota’s staunch pass rush, led by All-Pro DE Jared Allen (69); Ray Edwards (91), who had three sacks of Tony Romo; and DT Kevin Williams (93). Even if Brees is pressured, though, the Vikings rarely intercept passes. They had only 11, led by CB Cedric Griffin (23) with four.
Given time, Brees can pick apart any unit by using outstanding receivers Marques Colston (12), Devery Henderson (19), Robert Meachem (17), Lance Moore (160, and TEs David Thomas (85) and Jeremy Shockey (88), once a teammate of Shiancoe’s with the Giants. All of New Orleans’ wideouts can get deep, a particular challenge for Griffin and CB Antoine Winfield (26).
Where both teams excel is in the return game. First-round pick Harvin came from the Florida Gators with a rep for big plays and he’s made lots of them for the Vikes. He ranked fourth in the NFL with a 25.9 kickoff return average and scored twice. The Saints’ Courtney Roby (15) had the same average and scored once.
Then there’s the ultradangerous, if inconsistent, Bush on punt runbacks. He struggled in the regular season, but erupted for an 83-yard TD against Arizona.
Vikings placekicker Ryan Longwell (8) is a clutch veteran with a strong leg. He missed only two of his 28 field goal attempts this season. New Orleans used both longtime standby John Carney and Garrett Hartley (5) in 2009. Hartley has the job now and is far more unproven than Longwell.
Neither Minnesota’s Chris Kluwe (5) nor Saints rookie Thomas Moorstead (6) has been lights-out punters. Kluwe is efficient at getting kicks inside opponents’ 20.
Two of the finest offensive minds in the game go at it. Payton and Vikings coach Brad Childress were coveted coordinators before landing their current jobs. Favre probably wouldn’t have postponed retirement — again — for any other coach, save Mike Holmgren.
Childress’ scheme is almost exactly what Favre ran in Green Bay, and although they had a sideline tiff late in the season, the two agree on most strategies. While Childress is an Andy Reid disciple, he recognizes the value of the running game more than his former boss; when you have Peterson in your backfield, you’d better do so.
The fact Favre had his best passer rating and threw only seven picks in 531 attempts says much about the influence Childress and coordinator Darrell Bevell have had on the old QB.
Brees and Payton share the same strategic mindset, too, which makes for a free-flowing, versatile attack. While Payton toys with the offensive playbook, he entrusts the defense to Gregg Williams, and the Saints did improve there this season. But they aren’t as stingy or physical as the Vikings under coordinator Leslie Frazier, who has been a candidate for several head coaching positions in recent years.