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Ignored but not forgotten, Saints' powerful offense holds key

NEW ORLEANS -- Something interesting is going on here leading up to Thursday night's Kickoff Game between the Vikings and Saints. Schools are letting out early in parts around town on game day; there will be a midday parade; the game is being treated as if the winner gets a slot in the Super Bowl; and there has barely been a word uttered about the Saints' offense.

If there is any edge the Saints carry other than homefield, it's the fact that somewhere lost among Brett Favre's ankle, Darren Sharper's knee, and Adrian Peterson's fumbles, is an offense that ranked No. 1 overall last season, hanging an average of 31.9 points on opponents. New Orleans even scored 31 points to defeat Minnesota in overtime in the NFC Championship Game.

Think Saints coach Sean Payton and his overshadowed quarterback, Drew Brees, aren't loving this? The most prominent conversation involving a Saints offensive player the past week has been whether the Heisman Trust will recoup its heralded trophy from running back Reggie Bush.

Payton has probably been spending weeks figuring out how many receivers he can get out on patterns to take advantage of the Vikings' secondary -- short on cornerbacks and questionable at safety. Sure, protecting Brees isn't easy against Jared Allen, Ray Edwards and the Williams duo, but if he gets the ball out quickly, they'll be rendered to pursuer status.

The past few days, Saints players have emphasized the need to get out front early, and they think they've got the undisclosed game plan to do it. It's not difficult to figure out that it will come by throwing the ball. Minnesota doesn't yield many yards on the ground (New Orleans had 68 in the NFC title game last season), so Brees targeting multiple receivers in some form is on tap.

"You don't know how the game is going to start off, but we have to keep playing hard and start fast to put them in a hole," running back Pierre Thomas said. "Everybody knows the Vikings are a good team, a tough team to play against. They have that tough defense, but we like the challenge. No matter who we play against, we want a challenge. We have to start off fast and really hit them in the mouth before they hit us."

An early Saints lead could take some of the starch out of Peterson being fed the ball, which will be the Vikings' game plan, and put things in Favre's hands. While Favre is always dangerous, the Saints would prefer to get after him than spend the game corralling a motivated Peterson.

Favre's receiving options took a hit with the loss of Sidney Rice, plus the Saints feel they have the corners in Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter to play a lot of single coverage on the Vikings' wideouts. That means more players to come after Favre, who, as we know, took a major beating when these teams met in January (the Saints didn't record a sack).

A New Orleans coach told me the Saints played two defenses during the preseason, so what the Vikings will see Thursday night will be something new. Expect New Orleans to use multiple fronts -- three-, four- and five-man sets -- and a variety of blitzes that could feature Malcolm Jenkins, Sharper's replacement at free safety.

Jenkins, the 2009 first-round cornerback, who has been moved to safety in part because Sharper is still recovering from offseason knee surgery, said he figures Favre is going to target him. But it could be Jenkins who is targeting Favre. Sharper got to Favre a few times in the NFC Championship, and on more than one occasion New Orleans' coaches and players have said that Jenkins will be doing a lot of the same things Sharper did.

Sharper said that even though his replecement has been somewhat conservative in terms of trying to make plays on the ball, Jenkins hasn't done anything to make anyone feel he will be mistake-prone. Sharper also said Jenkins is adept in blitz packages, having been itilized in that role last season when he took part in a lot of nickel packages and other sub-sets.

"The thing about these games is some people psyche themselves out and do more than what they're capable of doing or try to do more than they need to do," Jenkins said. "All I need to do is make the plays that come to me and my abilities will allow me to make plays."

The Saints' defense remains vulnerable against the run, and Minnesota is going to try to exploit that weakness in order to move the chains and keep Brees and New Orleans' offense off the field. If the Vikings have some success, the play-action passing game could be problematic for the Saints, especially if Minnesota's Percy Harvin can get loose deep.

Minnesota is going to have to stay out of long down-and-distance situations because its backfield is weaker without Chester Taylor, who signed with Chicago in the offseason. The Vikings will not only miss his reliability as a ball carrier and pass catcher, but also in protection. Peterson and Albert Young, who takes over for Taylor, will get more third-down action, but Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will dial up some exotic pressures to stress Peterson and Young -- and therefore stress Favre.

That, of course, could lead to turnovers. New Orleans had five of them in its NFC title game victory over Minnesota, none more memorable than Porter's fourth-quarter interception of Favre -- the last ball Favre threw in a game that counted.

Vikings fans are still smarting over the miscues that kept their team from a Super Bowl appearance in a game Minnesota controlled nearly every major statistical area. Peterson, who has spent the entire offseason hearing about his three fumbles against the Saints and his overall care-taking issues, said he's worked on getting better. We'll see.

If the Vikings are able to turn the tables and win the takeaway battle, they'll be in good shape. Good enough shape? Not so sure about that. I think the Saints' offense that has barely even been a sidebar to this game is going to end up being the determining factor.


Other Week 1 winners

I like Bucs over Browns, Dolphins over Bills, Bengals over Patriots, Texans over Colts, Jaguars over Broncos, Falcons to beat the Steelers, Titans over Raiders, Giants over Panthers, Lions to beat the Bears, Cardinals over Rams, Packers to beat the Eagles, 49ers over Seahawks, Cowboys to beat the Redskins, Baltimore to beat the Jets, and Chargers over Chiefs.

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