Reaching the playoffs, winning a division and preparing sufficiently for a postseason run are the main goals for all NFL teams coming out of training camp.
For years those were just pipe dreams for the New Orleans Saints, but lately the beloved bayou ballers have been a regular in the playoffs. They put themselves in contention for another charge at a Super Bowl title with last week's road win at Tennessee, clinching their third consecutive playoff berth, and now have one more away game left in the regular season in Sunday's showdown with the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome.
New Orleans improved to 10-3 by squeezing out a 22-17 victory over the Titans at LP Field. It wasn't pretty, as the Saints committed plenty of penalties and mistakes before reaching the double-digit win mark for the third year in a row.
The Saints have been on a roll with five straight wins, however, and currently hold a 1 1/2-game lead on Atlanta for first place in the NFC South after the Falcons defeated Jacksonville on Thursday. Head coach Sean Payton spoke about his playoff-bound team during his Monday press conference.
"You want to play well enough during the year to get into the postseason," he said. "We have high goals and high aspirations. Certainly that's one of them. With three games left, though, there's still a lot at stake in regards to positioning yourself for the playoffs. I think that's where the focus has been. We always start with making the playoffs and winning your division and then putting yourself in the best position to play well in the playoffs."
That wasn't the case last year, when an upstart Seattle team bounced the Saints out of the first round with a win in the Pacific Northwest. Whether it was a case of a Super Bowl hangover the year prior or just a lack of preparation, New Orleans was sent home prematurely. The bitter loss left a sour taste in the players' mouths, especially that of quarterback Drew Brees, who's been on an absolute tear this season and has made an admirable bid for the league's MVP award. He's one of just four quarterbacks to have already passed for 4,000 yards, joining Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning, and all four right- armed gunslingers have their respective teams currently aiming for the Vince Lombardi trophy -- something Brees would like to grip for a second time in his career.
Brees and the Saints target their first six-game winning streak since Oct. 31- Dec. 12 of last season and look to improve to 7-3 against the NFC with a win over the Vikings. Brees leads the NFL with 4,368 passing yards and is on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing record of 5,084 yards set during the 1984 campaign. Brady, Rodgers and Manning are also in the running for one of the league's most impressive records.
Perhaps someday Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder will put up numbers similar to Marino and the rest of those quarterbacks. Right now he's not even close, however, and the first-round draft pick is also questionable for Sunday's game with a hip injury suffered a few weeks ago. However, it wasn't his hip that got Ponder benched in last week's 34-28 loss at Detroit, as his removal was based on performance.
Ponder, who took over for an ineffective Donovan McNabb back in October, threw three interceptions against Detroit and his fumble on Minnesota's first offensive snap was recovered in the end zone for a 7-0 Lions lead. He had two touchdown passes and 115 yards on the day, but by the third quarter head coach Leslie Frazier had seen enough and called on backup Joe Webb. The second-year pro completed 12 of his 23 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown.
"Joe did a lot of good things when he got in the ball game," Frazier said Monday. "He created a spark for our team and really gave us a boost and protected the football and put together some nice drives."
There's no quarterback controversy in the Twin Cities, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see Webb get the start Sunday if Ponder's hip pointer is still an issue.
Another area of concern for Minnesota has been the health of prized running back Adrian Peterson. He is dealing with a high ankle sprain and has missed the last three weeks because of the problem, but the main focus for the Vikings offensively appears on track to play against the Saints.
Peterson has scored a touchdown in each of his last six games (8 total), and Frazier said this week it would be a boost to get him back. The head coach said there's still more time before Sunday's game to evaluate the running back's status, but he has been practicing in a limited capacity this week.
Webb led the Vikings with 109 yards rushing in the loss to the Lions, most of which came when he ripped off a 65-yard touchdown run. Toby Gerhart has taken most of the reps in the backfield, and that will not change until Peterson returns.
Minnesota is only 2-11 on the season, the team's worst record since the early days of the organization, and is mired in a five-game losing streak. The Vikings had last lost five in a row in 1997 and haven't sustained six consecutive defeats since losing the last six contests of the 1984 season (Nov. 11-Dec. 16). Les Steckel was head coach at the time, and the club finished 3-13.
Minnesota has an 18-8 lead in its overall regular-season series with New Orleans and had won four consecutive non-playoff meetings against the Saints prior to a 14-9 loss at the Superdome in a Thursday night clash that kicked off the NFL's 2010 campaign. The Saints have left with a defeat in five straight visits to the Metrodome as well, which includes a setback there in the 2000 NFC Playoffs, and were dealt a 33-16 loss to the Vikings in their last trip to Minneapolis back in 2005. New Orleans, which also lost at home to Minnesota by a 30-27 score in 2008, is 2-11 all-time as the visitor in this set and last prevailed at the Metrodome via a 17-14 decision on Nov. 28, 1993.
Last season's opener between these teams was a rematch of the 2009 NFC Championship Game held in New Orleans, in which the Saints outlasted Minnesota in a 30-27 overtime thriller en route to their first and only Super Bowl championship. The Vikings won their two other postseason bouts with New Orleans, a 44-10 rout at the Superdome in a 1987 NFC First-Round clash and a 34-16 home victory in the 2000 Divisional round.
Payton owns a 2-1 record against Minnesota during his tenure with New Orleans, while Frazier has never faced either the Saints or Payton in his present position.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees (4368 passing yards, 32 TD, 11 INT) was 36-for-47 for 337 yards against the Titans and completed passes to nine different Saints, including a pair of touchdown strikes to wide receiver Marques Colston (58 receptions, 826 yards, 5 TD) in the fourth quarter. Brees' touchdown pass to Colston with 7:01 left in the game gave the Saints a 22-10 lead. Kicker John Kasay needed to boot three field goals to get the Saints on the board after the offense struggled for three quarters, but New Orleans did not commit a turnover for the fourth consecutive game to improve to 20-0 under Payton when not doing so. Brees extended his NFL-record streak of games with 20 or more completions to 33 as well and became the second quarterback in NFL history to have four consecutive seasons of 30 or more touchdown passes, joining Brett Favre (1994-98). He has 10 games of 300 passing yards or more in 2011, tying the NFL record he tied in 2008 and Rich Gannon set in 2002. Brees also has a touchdown pass in 40 straight games -- second in NFL history behind Johnny Unitas' 47. Tight end Jimmy Graham (80 receptions, 1101 yards, 8 TD) has been on the receiving end of plenty of Brees' scoring passes and is the first tight end in Saints history with 1,000 yards receiving. Running back Darren Sproles (463 rushing yards, 2 TD) has lived up to his all-purpose billing and has also hauled in 74 passes for 580 yards and four scores. The offseason addition said Brees is the type of player who makes others better, and he's proof. Sproles is second on the team in receptions, with Graham leading the way.
The Vikings have been allowing too many points during their free-fall (33 per game) and must avoid getting into a track meet with the Saints, as that's a game they will lose right off the bat. Minnesota has tough defenders in defensive end Jared Allen (54 tackles, 18 sacks) and linebackers Chad Greenway (118 tackles, 1 sack) and E. J. Henderson (76 tackles, 2 sacks). Allen is a coming off a three-sack performance against the Lions and has four in the past two weeks. The fiery defender can come off of the edge quicker than most ends and will definitely be a concern of Brees most of the time. Greenway leads the team in tackles once again and has posted 100 or more stops in two straight and four of his five years in the league. Sproles may cause problems underneath for Minnesota's defense, which is why Greenway and Henderson have to be at their best. Covering Graham will be an issue as well for the Vikings, who are allowing 248.8 passing yards per game and are 30th in points allowed (28.0 ppg). Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had two touchdown passes against the group last week, but that was good for this defense. Safety Jamarca Sanford (56 tackles) leads the team with two picks, while corners Asher Allen (42 tackles) and Cedric Griffin (62 tackles) could be in for a long afternoon.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
The best way for the Vikings to attack New Orleans is through the air, as the Saints are 30th in pass defense, allowing 268.0 yards per game. Minnesota isn't that great at pass defense either at 26th in the league, but stacks up well offensively in this matchup. Ponder (1637 passing yards, 11 TD, 11 INT) will get the start if he's healthy, and Frazier isn't about to play musical chairs with his quarterbacks. The rookie must protect the football, however, and had five touchdown passes to five interceptions over his past two games. He has been intercepted more than once in four games this season, and his poor performance was the reason why the Vikings played from behind last week. Webb saw more action than he's been used to in Detroit, finishing with 84 yards passing and leading the team in rushing. His 65-yard score was the longest by a quarterback in franchise history, a big surprise since Fran Tarkenton and Daunte Culpepper both sported the Purple and Gold at one time. Peterson (872 rushing yards, 11 TD) is the team's leading rusher and has been sidelined for three straight weeks. Rushing him back would be a mistake since there's nothing to play for, but he seems healthy enough to participate in this game. Gerhart (343 rushing yards, TD) is a bulldozer and is Minnesota's best ground option if Peterson can't go. The team is fourth in rushing with an average of 145.6 yards per game, thanks mostly to Peterson.
New Orleans needed its defense to bail the team out against the Titans, as linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar (67 tackles, 1 sack) sacked rookie backup quarterback Jake Locker inside the Saints' 10-yard line as time expired to preserve the five-point victory. Defensive end Will Smith (29 tackles) had three tackles in the game and his fourth-quarter sack put him into a tie for the team lead at seven with safety Roman Harper (83 tackles). The Saints' defense could pile up some more sacks against Ponder if he plays, but will have to adjust their game if the mobile Webb gets the nod. Payton said the key to beating Locker when Titans starter Matt Hasselbeck went down with an injury was to work on containing and not getting behind the quarterback in the pass rush. There are some similarities with Ponder and Webb, and it will be up to defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to make the proper adjustments. Not having to take on Peterson would be a breath of fresh air, and the hard-charging back could possibly rest once again in order for his ankle to heal properly. The Saints are 15th against the run, allowing 110.3 yards per game, but had no trouble with the Titans' Chris Johnson, who was bottled up for 23 yards on 11 carries.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Saints are 6-0 at home and although this game will be played in Minnesota, they play exceptionally well under a dome. They'll try to turn the game into a track meet on the fast surface. Look for Brees to pick apart the Vikings' secondary, as he is first in the NFL with a 70.9 completion percentage and 336.0 passing yards per game. He has won his past two encounters with Minnesota as well.
Minnesota's X-factor could be wide receiver/return man Percy Harvin. The former first-round pick has recorded a touchdown in four straight games (5 total) and will give New Orleans some coverage problems. Harvin has caught a team-best 69 passes for 779 yards this season.
New Orleans has a perfect record (20-0) under Payton when it doesn't turn the ball over, but a formidable pass rush from the Vikes could change that this week. One or two turnovers will not keep the Saints from winning, but three or more gives the Vikings a real chance to pull off the upset.
The Saints are on a mission for another NFC South title and will not let a lowly Vikings team get in the way of their plan. Though anything can happen in the NFL, having Brees turn in a clunker on Sunday is unthinkable. Minnesota has had trouble this season when it comes to dealing with elite quarterbacks, and it's almost certain Brees will dissect the secondary with another 300-yard, 20- completion performance. Minnesota rarely retreats within the friendly confines of the Metrodome, but a determined Saints squad has the firepower to change that.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Vikings 13