A position-by-position breakdown of the Minnesota-New Orleans NFC title game on Sunday.
This could not be a closer call. Drew Brees has such a firm command of this offense and, with no crowd noise to deal with, he will be able to get his team into proper pre-snap alignments, protections and audibles. Brees must maintain his composure because he is going to feel pressure. Expect him to toy with the snap count to keep Minnesota off balance.
Reggie Bush showed up vs. Arizona and finally displayed the big-play juice he hasn't shown since his rookie season. Pierre Thomas, Lynell Hamilton and Mike Bell joined Bush in combining for 170 yards rushing. It could be much tougher to grind out yards vs. the Vikings. Bush and Thomas could emerge as threats in the passing game. This is a dangerous group.
The volume of options makes this a formidable unit. Tight end Jeremy Shockey could really be a factor as the Vikings prefer to concentrate on limiting deep passes on the edges. WR Marques Colston could have a big game across the middle. Minnesota's defensive backs are physical and will try to re-route receivers to throw off their timing.
The most underrated unit on the team, the conference and maybe the NFL. Pro Bowl RT Jonathan Stinchcomb will have to contend with DE Ray Edwards and LT Jermon Bushrod will have to try to stave off Jared Allen. If C Jonathan Goodwin and the guards can get leverage inside, New Orleans might hit the Vikings on a few runs. The Vikings' defensive line provides a stiff test.
Smith is one of the better pass rushers around. The loss of DE Charles Grant (triceps) hurts. Veteran Bobby McCray has stepped in and been much more of a pass-rushing threat than maybe even the Saints expected, however. DT Sedrick Ellis has to show up big time. Fellow tackles Anthony Hargrove and Remi Ayodele can get caught in traffic in the run game.
OLBs Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle are going to be pressed because Minnesota might try to run on the edges in an attempt to get both in some pass coverage matchups with Harvin, Shiancoe and RB Chester Taylor. MLB Jonathan Vilma is incredibly active and physical, but he must be careful not to over-pursue because of the cutback and bootleg action the Vikings utilize.
The secondary didn't allow a passing touchdown against Arizona last week. Corners Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter played well, and Sharper recovered a fumble. Facing his former team will be huge for Sharper and he has to be careful not to get caught being too aggressive. Minnesota will try to fool him, but he's crafty and should know what's coming.
Bush regained his magic last week, returning a punt 83 yards for a TD. He took two to the house last season against the Vikings. He might not be as productive in this game, but if he can hit some decent returns to shorten the field, it could make Brees and Co. far more dangerous. Punter Thomas Morstead is as good as it gets when it comes to dropping balls inside the 20.
Sean Payton is one of the best in the league at finding mismatches on offense. There won't be many, but he will find them and give Brees a chance. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had a great game plan vs. Arizona. He might not blitz Favre early, instead opting to drop seven in coverage and guard against the run. At some point, though, Williams will blitz.
The home-field advantage can't be overstated. The Saints are very comfortable playing in front of their fans and their fans will make things very difficult on the Vikings. If New Orleans takes an early lead, things could get sticky for Minnesota. Though the Saints are the top seed and playing at home, the pressure is on the Vikings because of the Favre experiment.
Brett Favre is playing at an incredible level. His teammates trust him, especially since he's playing in his 24th postseason game. He has navigated through hostile opposing stadiums before, but not all of his teammates have. Favre has to keep them poised, while he must take care of the ball. Facing a susceptible defense gives Favre the edge.
Adrian Peterson hasn't gone over 100 yards rushing in eight straight games, including the playoffs. Minnesota is still insistent with the ground game, though, allowing it to set up its play-action pass game. Peterson could have a big game against the Saints' inconsistent run defense. WR Percy Harvin could get involved some out of the backfield as well.
Sidney Rice has shown that no matter how good the coverage, he can still come down with the ball. He is going to generate a lot of attention because he is Favre's go-to guy. TE Visanthe Shiancoe could be a beneficiary of the attention that will be paid to Rice and Harvin. He is a tough cover and is looking forward to facing old teammate, S Darren Sharper.
Tackles Phil Loadholt and Bryant McKinnie did an excellent job keeping Favre's uniform clean last week. McKinnie will be pressed again by Saints DE Will Smith. The physical interior of this line should be able to create some holes for Peterson and force the Saints' defensive backs to step up and make plays, which could open up options in the play-action game.
Edwards is the only member of the unit that hasn't made the Pro Bowl, but he put himself on the map with a three-sack effort vs. Dallas. He hurt his knee in the win, but the Vikings are hopeful he'll play. This is a stone wall in terms of a run-stopping front. If Pat and Kevin Williams can push the pass pocket from the inside, Edwards and Allen might have some shots at Brees.
Minnesota could spend a lot of time in nickel sets, meaning Chad Greenway and Ben Leber will spend a lot of time on the field alone. Both are around the ball and are decent in coverage. In the base defense, MLB Jasper Brinkley has played well. The Saints will try to run off tackle and could really push the screen game, so Leber and Greenway will have to be disciplined.
Corners Benny Sapp and Cedric Griffin were physical with Dallas' receivers and re-routed them. If they can do that to the Saints, it will disrupt their timing, which is crucial. Along with Antoine Winfield, the corners are sure tackles. FS Madieu Williams will likely be targeted on routes where he is forced to choose between jumping a crossing route and protecting deep.
The Vikings' coverage teams were sensational against the Cowboys. A lot of credit has to go to punter Chris Kluwe, whose hang time and directional punting allowed the coverage unit ample time to smother. His being able to do that against the Saints will be crucial. If it comes down to a field goal, Ryan Longwell is more than capable.
Brad Childress has pushed the right buttons offensively and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell trusts Favre to get the unit into the correct play call. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier dialed up a masterpiece against the Cowboys and will have some tricks to try and confuse Sean Payton in what should be a great chess match.
Favre has played in a ton of big games and had a lot of big moments. This is huge on both counts. A victory and he's in a Super Bowl and everything that the Vikings have gone through will be worth it. Minnesota is 4-4 on the road and dropped its last three away from home. The Vikings have to show resolve, because the Saints are going to try and hit them hard off the bat.