Minnesota's trip to New Orleans to kick off the 2010 NFL season is, of course, a rematch of last year's conference championship game. For the Vikings, it's a return to the scene of their impossible disappointment; the Superdome is the place where the string of everything-went-rights went wrong. After eighteen games of things going just about as well as any Purple fan could hope, it all came crashing down, thanks to five turnovers, an inopportune penalty, and a lost coin flip.
It's tempting, then, to see this week's game as more than it really is. It'd be easy to say that the Vikings season could well hinge on Week 1; win, and the ghosts of 2009 are gone forever and nothing stands in the way, lose, and it's all downwards from here. And yet, rematches aside, the trip to visit the Saints is just one of sixteen Vikings games this year. And so, a look at three things that this game won't prove, no matter how much people might pretend that it does:
1. That the Vikings are NFC North contenders - or pretenders.
Win or lose, Minnesota's road to the division title still runs through a five-week stretch in which it plays Green Bay twice. Week 7 at Lambeau, and Week 11 at the Metrodome, will determine the front-runner for the division crown. Beating the defending Super Bowl champions won't prove that the Vikings can beat the Packers, who are the experts' pick to supplant Minnesota at the top of the Norris.
2. That almost anything is true, or not true, about Brett Favre.
The Vikings QB turned the ball over three times in January, and came out of the game with an ankle injury that's reportedly still affecting him. The Saints were called for two 15-yard penalties for very late hits on Favre, but after the game, were lauded for their physical approach to dealing with the quarterback.
We can see a lot of things happening Thursday night. If Favre plays poorly and turns the ball over, someone will say that he's gun-shy, or that he's still affected by the pounding he took last season. If he plays well, someone will say that he's exorcised his Superdome demons, that the game's proof that the Ol' Gunslinger still has what it takes.
The truth, whatever happens, is that Favre is a near-41-year-old man who had perhaps the best season of his career last year. Surviving one game won't prove that his aging frame can handle the pounding of a season (especially considering the Vikings' oft-porous offensive line). An injury won't prove that Number Four held on a year too long, or that the team made a mistake in bringing him back. And Favre's performance, good or bad, won't prove that he's due for another 2009, or for a final drop-off. As experienced as he is, he's an old guy that's played one half of football in nine months. Nothing will be decided in this one game.
3. That the Vikings secondary is the team's weak link.
Admittedly, things look bleak at the back of the Minnesota defense. With Cedric Griffin returning from an ACL injury that kept him out of all of training camp, and rookie Chris Cook laid up with a preseason knee injury, the team is down to just three cornerbacks - Antoine Winfield, Lito Sheppard, and nickel back Asher Allen. With backup safety Jamarca Sanford also bothered by an ankle injury, and the Saints using a preponderance of three- and four-receiver sets, things aren't looking so good.
It'd be tempting, then, to identify a poor night for the Purple defensive backs as a harbinger of things to come. At the moment, it looks like Minnesota will have to cover the New Orleans receivers with its front four, as it were; pressure on Drew Brees may be the only way to stop the Saints passing game. But even if things do go badly, the return of Griffin and Cook later in the year will help shore up this unit. Even if the Vikings get torched, there'll be no need to - yet - resurrect the old Burn Unit nickname.
The NFL went for the obvious symmetry when scheduling the opening game of 2010: a rematch in the Superdome. Their storyline is supposed to be a chance for redemption for the Vikings, and a chance to assert another year of dominance for the Saints. The problem, though, is that no matter what happens, it's just Week 1, and nothing will be proven except that one team will begin the year with a loss.