Trip to Super Bowl will come down to star power in NFC title game

Months ago, most NFL people felt the two best NFC teams were the Saints and Vikings. They finished the season as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, and now meet for the right to go to the Super Bowl.

Two great quarterbacks, superstar running backs and 15 Pro Bowlers in the game makes this the matchup we have all been waiting for, and the winner will be the favorite to win the Lombardi Trophy.

Here are the three pressing questions that must be answered for this game:

1. Can the Vikings run the ball?

Last week, Minnesota ran the ball 33 times to just 27 passes. Dallas had a very good run defense, but coach Brad Childress knew a balanced attack gave him the best chance to win, and he will look to run the ball over 30 times against the Saints.

The best weapon a road team has is the run game, which can take the home-field noise out of the equation. As the Vikings examine the Saints' last five games, including the win over the Cardinals last week, they will be encouraged to work the ground attack. Over that stretch, New Orleans has given up 689 yards on the ground or 137.8 yards per game. Opponents averaged 28.6 carries at 4.8 yards per attempt and the Saints surrendered seven rushing touchdowns.

Charles Grant was the starting left defensive end before going on injured reserve. He was a much better run defender than pass rusher. His absence opens up opportunities for Adrian Peterson and Co. to attack the right side.

Peterson was relatively quiet in the regular season, but still finished with 1,383 yards rushing. He averaged 18.3 carries for 80.4 yards in eight road games and added 11 touchdowns. Peterson also had 24 catches for another 314 yards, and his receiving skills will come into play in this game.

While the game quickly got away from the Cardinals last week, they still ran for 6.7 yards per carry against the Saints. The Vikings will not lose sight of that production. Look for Brett Favre to come to the line of scrimmage and use a quick-count run game to reduce the problems the noise creates in the Superdome. The Vikings should run the ball 30-plus times for well over 100 yards and at least one touchdown. If they don't, they'll be in trouble.

2. How will the Saints attack through the air?

Minnesota relies on its pass rush to cover up some coverage issues in the back end of its defense. Dallas sacked Drew Brees four times in handing New Orleans' its first loss of the year in Week 15.

Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards hurt his knee last week, and his status is in doubt. If he plays, he definitely won't be 100 percent. Against Dallas, he had three sacks, six hits on the quarterback and a forced fumble.

If the Vikings can't get to Brees, the Saints' passing machine will be up and running, with the first target being Minnesota's safeties. New Orleans is very good at spreading out formations and isolating opposing safeties with tight end Jeremy Shockey and receiver Marques Colston in the slot.

Many teams try to handle the Saints with a man underneath/two-deep safety look. That scheme puts a defender on every receiver as they come off the line of scrimmage and two safeties playing half the field each behind them. If Minnesota uses that coverage, look for New Orleans to release Reggie Bush on middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley.

Jared Allen only had five sacks on the road this season and needs to beat LT Jermon Bushrod, or Brees will distribute the ball to a plethora of receiving options.

3. What will be the Favre factor?

This will be Favre's 24th playoff start and he will be ready for the game of his life. This season, he learned to take a sack instead of throwing an interception. Favre was sacked once every 12.4 pass attempts on the road, but only threw five interceptions away from home.

Pass defense for the Saints starts with safety Darren Sharper, who was Favre's teammate for eight years in Green Bay. Sharper led a defense that had 26 interceptions and the Saints count on those picks to beat opponents.

DE Will Smith leads a pass rush that has to rattle Favre and make him willing to take a chance on a high-risk play. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to attack quarterbacks, but is challenged by a 19-year veteran quarterback that's seen it all and has a done a great job of developing receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin as well as tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

The Saints' home-field advantage will have its biggest impact on Favre and the passing game. It will make it difficult for Favre to communicate with Rice and Harvin when he's over the ball and sees a reason to change a play. Favre threw 21 touchdowns at home in the regular season and only 12 on the road. Against the high-powered Saints, he needs to feel at home in New Orleans.

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