When the Saints go marching into the Superdome on Sunday evening to face the Minnesota Vikings, they will be lugging with them the dreams of the long-suffering New Orleans' fans. Only one other time in the team's mostly star crossed history has it advanced this far in a quest for a championship, but that season ended with a disappointing blowout.
Although their opponents in the NFC Championship game have reached the Super Bowl four times in team history, the Vikings similarly have yet to end a season in jubilation. Fans of both teams share the same high hopes that this will be their year.
The hard, cruel reality of the NFL's annual single elimination tourney, though, is that the dream will end for one team and their fan base on Sunday night. Conversely, the other triumphantly heads to Miami for Super Bowl 44 and further lifts the energy and anticipation in their hometown.
While the AFC contest pits teams of contrasting styles (as detailed in yesterday's post AFC Championship Preview: Can Ryan's Jets Beat the Colts Varsity? ), the NFC title game matches teams that are close to mirror images. Both the Saints and Vikings can score points in bunches and are led by the two highest rated quarterbacks in the NFL this season.
On defense, Minnesota boasts the stronger unit in traditional terms of limiting yardage and scoring, but New Orleans makes up for any deficiencies with its opportunistic style. As they did last week against Arizona, they force turnovers and score points. Led by former Vikings star Darren Sharper, the Saints defense scored a remarkable eight touchdowns in the regular season.
Both teams have struggled with pass coverage, although some of this relates to opponents playing catch-up. The Saints finished 26th against the pass, but with some of their secondary back at full strength after injuries, this number might belie their true capabilities.
The Vikings compensate for pass coverage issues with a heavy pass rush, led by All Pro defensive end Jared Allen. They led the NFL in sacks and will surely look to keep the pressure on Brees, but may be limited by the absence of its other three starters on the defensive line. All three are listed as "questionable", so this could have an huge impact on the Vikings chances.
On the other side of the line, the Vikings feature one of the NFL's biggest names in running back Adrian Peterson, while the Saints deploy a running back by committee approach. Oddly enough, the Saints have been more effective on the ground, especially considering that Peterson has not cracked the century mark for yards in a game in eight weeks.
The front four has also been instrumental in the Vikings second best run defense. Besides the injury factor, because the Saints tend to use the pass to set up the run, it is reasonable to assume that they will still have some success on the ground. Look for them to run delays and draws with underrated Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, and try to get Reggie Bush in space to take advantage of his explosiveness.
If Bush plays with the same determination and energy as a week ago, it could be a long day for the Vikings. Brees will look to get the ball out quickly and make the Vikings pay for over pursuit by swinging the ball to Bush on the edges. His favorite target continues to be Marques Colston, but Brees does an exceptional job getting everyone involved in the offense.
Favre will attempt to use his big arm to get the ball down the field and change things up by dumping the ball off to Peterson, Chester Taylor and hopefully Percy Harvin ( a game time decision due to migraines). The Vikings big vertical threat comes in the form of the lanky, fast and athletic Sidney Rice, who lit up the Cowboys with three touchdowns.
From a pure talent perspective, the Vikings could be the best team in football. However, the Saints look to be healthier, have home 'dome advantage and seem to have intangibles in their favor.
The ultimate swing factor comes down to the two QB's, though. Brees has a history of consistently playing well in big games, and although he has had the greater fanfare, Favre has had a Jekyll and Hyde persona in big games throughout his career. On Sunday, my money is on Brees and the Saints to continue their quest to make "The Aints" moniker a distant memory.