(Sports Network) - The New Orleans Saints will begin the first title defense in their 43-year history on Thursday night, when Drew Brees and company host Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL's 2010 lid-lifter from the Louisiana Superdome.
The Saints are seven months removed from their landmark 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, a championship that offered a long- sought-after taste of glory for a franchise that had previously been among the most star-crossed in league annals.
New Orleans welcomes back most of the critical pieces from last year's run to a title, with Brees and the league's No. 1 scoring offense (31.9 points per game) returning largely intact and a playmaking defense undergoing just a few subtle tweaks.
Head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis brought in end Alex Brown (ex-Bears) and tackle Jimmy Wilkerson (ex-Buccaneers) to compete for jobs in the offseason, also using a first-round draft choice on cornerback Patrick Robinson (Florida State). One of the missing pieces from the 2009 squad, at least for now, is safety Darren Sharper. The Pro Bowler, who posted nine interceptions a year ago, comes off microfrature knee surgery and will miss at least the season's first six games. Another is linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who is out for the year with a foot injury. The Saints earlier this week signed veteran linebacker Danny Clark (ex-Giants), who last played for the team in 2006, to help bolster the depth in that area.
Attempting to exploit any lingering defensive deficiencies among the Saints will be Favre, who returned to the Vikings in mid-August after his obligatory annual battle with retirement.
Favre, whose key interception helped deflate Minnesota in last January's 31-28 overtime loss to the Saints, will begin his 20th season in the league, and second as the Vikings' starter. The 40-year-old legend comes off one of his top statistical seasons, in which he threw for 4,202 yards with 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions for a team that went 12-4 and won the NFC North.
Questions linger around the future Hall of Famer, however. Favre underwent offseason ankle surgery that helped delay his decision to return to the NFL, and the fabric of the Vikings' receiving picture is different from when he last led a meaningful drive last Jan. 24th.
No. 1 wideout Sidney Rice (83 receptions, 1312 yards, 8 TD in 2009) is expected to be out until at least November after undergoing hip surgery, and second-year speedster Percy Harvin (60 receptions, 790 yards, 6 TD) was sidelined for much of the preseason due to persistent issues with migraine headaches.
Also missing will be Chester Taylor, who defected to the NFC North rival Chicago Bears after catching 44 balls as a Viking a year ago.
The Vikes' added ex-Dolphin Greg Camarillo via a trade late in the preseason and signed Favre's former Packers teammate Javon Walker, though Walker did not make it past the team's final roster cuts.
The Saints will be trying to maintain a positive streak by reigning Super Bowl champions, which have won the next year's regular season opener in each of the last 10 seasons. The 1998 Denver Broncos, who followed up their Super Bowl XXXIII win over the Falcons with a 38-21 Week 1 loss to the Miami Dolphins in 1999, are the last defending champion to open their subsequent slate on a losing note.
Minnesota has a 18-7 lead in its all-time regular season series with New Orleans, and extended its winning streak over the Saints to four with a 30-27 road win in Week 5 of the 2008 season. Minnesota has won three straight regular season meetings at the Superdome since the Saints were 28-15 victors in a 2001 contest, a game that also marks New Orleans' most recent victory in the non- playoff series.
The Vikings have a 2-1 edge in the playoff series, including last year's NFC Championship loss. Minnesota won an NFC Divisional Playoff in 2000 (34-16), one week after New Orleans had posted its first playoff win in franchise history, and also claiming a 44-10 decision in an NFC First-Round playoff in 1987, which marked the first postseason game in Saints annals.
The Vikings' Brad Childress and Saints' Sean Payton are 1-1 in their head-to- head series, and 1-1 against their counterpart's respective teams.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
With Favre still hobbled to an extent and the receiving corps in a state of flux, the Vikings could head into Thursday looking to ride the significant talents of running back Adrian Peterson (1383 rushing yards, 18 TD, 43 receptions in 2009) to a victory. Peterson comes off his third Pro Bowl season in as many years as a pro, but his three fumbles (one lost) in last year's NFC Championship loss to the Saints still loom large on his resume'. The offseason departure of Taylor means second-year-pro Albert Young (53 rushing yards) is in line for a bigger role as Favre's backup. When the most famous No. 4 in NFL annals drops to throw, a group including wideouts Harvin (60 receptions, 6 TD), Camarillo (50 receptions with Dolphins), Bernard Berrian (55 receptions, 4 TD) and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (56 receptions) will be the top targets. Shiancoe's 11 touchdown catches led the Vikings a year ago. The trench group, led by tackle Bryant McKinnie and guard Steve Hutchinson on the left side, returns intact. The o-line allowed 34 sacks of Favre a year ago.
A Saints defense that knocked Favre around in last year's NFC Championship will look to execute a similar gameplan in this installment, albeit with some new pieces doing the attacking. Brown (47 tackles, 6 sacks with Chicago), who had 43.5 sacks as a Bear from 2002 through 2009, will seek to provide a complement to Will Smith (49 tackles, 13 sacks) in the pass rush, while on the back end second-year safety Malcolm Jenkins (47 tackles, 1 INT) takes on a larger role in the absence of Sharper from the lineup. A New Orleans team that was just 21st against the run last year leans on linebackers Jonathan Vilma (109 tackles, 3 INT, 2 sacks) and Scott Shanle (68 tackles, 2 INT), tackle Sedrick Ellis (34 tackles, 2 sacks) and strong safety Roman Harper (99 tackles, 1.5 sacks) to do much of the run-stopping. Vilma and cornerback Tracy Porter (57 tackles, 4 INT) each had interceptions of Favre in January's playoff contest, with Porter's pick in overtime setting up New Orleans for the game-winning field goal. That said, both Porter (knee) and Vilma (groin) are battling injuries heading into Week 1 and their status will bear monitoring.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
While Favre is dealing with some uncertainty among his group of weapons, his counterpart Brees (4388 passing yards, 34 TD, 11 INT) welcomes back an offensive arsenal that remains virtually intact. The team's core group of wideouts - Marques Colston (70 receptions, 9 TD), Robert Meachem (45 receptions, 9 TD), Devery Henderson (51 receptions, 2 TD) and Lance Moore (14 receptions, 2 TD) - will continue to compete for balls along with tight ends Jeremy Shockey (48 receptions, 3 TD) and David Thomas (35 receptions, 1 TD). Henderson caught one of Brees' three touchdown passes in the 2009 NFC Championship, with the other two going to running backs Pierre Thomas (793 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 8 TD) and Reggie Bush (390 rushing yards, 47 receptions, 8 TD). The biggest change for the New Orleans offense could come within an underrated running game that was quietly No. 6 in NFL rushing offense a year ago. Mike Bell was a free agent defection to Philadelphia, and former Packer DeShawn Wynn is now attempting to insert himself into the New Orleans mix of backs. A solid New Orleans o-line allowed just 20 sacks of the quick- firing Brees in more than 500 dropback attempts a year ago.
The big question for the Minnesota defense on Thursday night is whether it has enough horses to run with the bevy of Saints targets. Cornerback Cedric Griffin (73 tackles, 4 INT) is a major question mark as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery, while rookie CB Chris Cook (Virginia) is dealing with a knee issue of his own and will miss the opener. That could leave Antoine Winfield (52 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack), Asher Allen (25 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack) and newcomer Lito Sheppard (31 tackles, 1 INT with the Jets) as the team's only three healthy corners. Suffice it to say, safeties Tyrell Johnson (54 tackles, 1 INT) and Madieu Williams (67 tackles) will have to be on their game as well. Looking to get in Brees' face will be the fine pass-rush tandem of ends Jared Allen (51 tackles, 14.5 sacks) and Ray Edwards (51 tackles, 8.5 sacks). A run defense that was No. 2 in the NFL last season remains a strength, and could be taken up a notch with middle linebacker E.J. Henderson (82 tackles, 2 sacks) back in the fold following last year's broken leg. Henderson and fellow LB Chad Greenway (98 tackles, 3 INT) should make plenty of plays behind the "Williams Wall", tackles Pat (44 tackles, 2 sacks) and Kevin Williams (31 tackles, 6 sacks).
Apart from Brees and perhaps kicker Garrett Hartley, using members of the Saints in fantasy lineups is always a risky venture because of the uncertain way the football will be distributed from week to week. Pierre Thomas, Bush, Colston, Meachem and Henderson are all going to get their touches, but predicting which weapon will make the biggest impact is a weekly exercise in futility. If it helps, Thomas scored twice against the Vikings in the 2009 NFC Championship, and Bush and Henderson found the end zone once each. The Saints defense scored a ton of real and fantasy points last season, and is a solid play even if there is no shutout potential here.
If you drafted Favre to be your starter, don't hesitate to use him. There may be some rust, and the receiving corps has some questions, but the guy always finds a way to make some big plays in these main-stage events. Peterson, Shiancoe and kicker Ryan Longwell are must-plays as well, and Berrian and/or Harvin might work as flex options. You're going to want to use the Minnesota defense most weeks, but this might be a time to pick up a spare "D" if it's a possibility.
The Saints might have to battle the after-effects of the "Super Bowl hangover" at some point in 2010, but look for their season-opener to be more an extension of the 2009 party than anything else. The Saints will have nearly their entire Super Bowl team on the field in what should be a raucous Superdome, and the big-game atmosphere should help Brees and company put their best foot forward. For their part, the Vikings would love nothing more than to spoil the party for a team that broke their hearts seven months ago, but Minnesota is banged-up and dealing with a little too much drama and uncertainty at this stage to make it happen.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 33, Vikings 24