New Orleans enters the season looking to end a streak of three straight 7-9 finishes when the Saints travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings in the first game of a “Monday Night Football” doubleheader to cap off Week 1. New Orleans would love to get off to a quick start after losing three in a row to start its 2016 campaign. The Saints also are hoping to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
In his fist three years as Minnesota’s head coach, Mike Zimmer has sandwiched an 11-5 season between a 7-9 showing in 2014 and last season’s 8-8 finish. The Vikings won the NFC North in 2015 but lost at home to Seattle in the NFC Wild Card Game.
Minnesota leads the all-time series with New Orleans 20-11. At home, the Vikings have a 12-3 advantage. The Saints have won the past four meetings, however, a streak that started with their victory in the NFC Championship Game in 2010.
New Orleans at Minnesota
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 11 at 7:10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Vikings -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Adrian Peterson returns to Minnesota
The NFL released its schedule five days before the Saints signed Peterson on April 25. If ESPN was fishing for an intriguing subplot for its first “Monday Night Football” matchup of the season, a juicy one plopped in its lap. Peterson’s first game since leaving the Vikings will take place in Minnesota.
Peterson finished a distant third in terms of rushing attempts and yards on the Vikings after playing in just three games last season. In his 10 seasons in Minnesota, he never piled up fewer than 970 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns when he played in at least 12 games. He also posted at least 18 receptions and 139 receiving yards in those eight seasons not cut short by injury or suspension. Peterson is 32 now so it will be interesting to see how much he has left in the tank, especially against his former team.
2. Vikings’ revamped offensive line
Five offensive linemen, including two starters, who were with the Vikings last year are no longer on the roster. Joe Berger, Jeremiah Sirles, Rashod Hill and Nick Easton are the only returning linemen. Only Berger, who has been shifted from center to right guard, made more than 10 starts in 2016. Three of the 10 offensive linemen on the roster lack significant NFL experience. Hill is in his second year while reserves Aviante Collins and Danny Isidora are rookies.
Minnesota’s running game finished last in the NFL in both yards (1,205) and yards per carry (3.2) in 2016. The Vikings surpassed 100 yards on the ground in only two games. In fact, opponents held them to fewer than 50 rushing yards three times. Minnesota also managed just nine rushing touchdowns, tied for 26th in the league. So was the offensive line the reason to blame for this anemic rushing attack? With wholesale changes up front as well as the additions of free agent Latavius Murray and second-round pick Dalvin Cook to the backfield this matchup with New Orleans should be a good barometer.
3. Improved defense for the Saints?
Last year the Saints allowed 454 points or 28.4 per game, an average that placed them second to last in the NFL ahead of only San Francisco (30.0 ppg). Yet as awful as those numbers are it was still an improvement over 2015 when New Orleans surrendered a total of 476 points or 29.8 per game.
This preseason, the Saints allowed a total of 41 points in four games, and six of those came via an interception return for a touchdown by the Chargers. New Orleans shut out Houston in the third preseason game. From a comparison standpoint, this defensive performance is on part with what the Saints did in 2009 preseason. That year, New Orleans allowed just 21.3 points per game in the regular season en route to a 13-3 record and eventual Super Bowl victory. Is that merely a coincidence or a reason for the Who Dat Nation to dream about returning to Minneapolis in early February for Super Bowl LII?
If the Saints do take a significant step forward on defense it will be on the strength of a remade lineup. Only five starters from last September’s unit remain – Cameron Jordan, Kenny Vaccaro, Stephone Anthony, Craig Robertson and Tyeler Davison. Many of the reserves have changed as well. Are there enough new faces to help New Orleans’ defense make an impact where it really counts – on the scoreboard?
Despite being the most successful head coach in the history of the Saints’ franchise, Sean Payton is starting to hear some grumbling from a segment of fans. Three straight losing seasons are making some of them forget about the Super Bowl XLIV victory, the multiple playoff wins and posting more winning seasons (five) than losing ones (four) in his decade-long tenure. They know that their future Hall of Fame quarterback has only a few years left in which to lead the Black and Gold to a second Lombardi Trophy. Will the combined pressures of dwindling time and growing impatience spur New Orleans back to the postseason?
Minnesota seemed well on its way to repeat as NFC North champions and contend for a Super Bowl berth at the start of 2016. The Vikings went into their bye week riding high at 5-0. After the time off, they stumbled to four straight losses, two of those within the division. A 3-4 finish left Minnesota looking on the outside in of the playoffs. The offseason saw the departure of numerous veterans, including Peterson, the franchise’s career rushing leader. Can the replacements get the Vikings back to the postseason?
Some nagging questions hover around this matchup. Will Peterson run wild on his former teammates? Will Minnesota’s offensive line makeover or a rebuilt Saints defense show more improvement out of the gates? The Vikings are favored by a field goal so like Vegas I’ll give the home team a slight nod in a game that should be tightly contested until the very end.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Saints 20
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.
(Top photo courtesy of www.neworleanssaints.com)