In dream QB matchup, Favre has edge
Vikings quarterback returned for another shot at the Super Bowl, and he'll get it
We should've seen this coming from the start. The New Orleans Saints were the hottest team in the NFC for 13 weeks. The Minnesota Vikings were the second-best squad for 11 weeks. They seemed to be steamrolling toward a meeting in the NFC title game and now here they are, the last two left in the race deciding conference supremacy.
One thing we already know is that this should be a heck of a game. But here are 10 other questions that deserve to be answered before kickoff next Sunday:
1. Which Pro Bowl quarterback has the edge in the NFC Championship Game?
Though Drew Brees is pursuing his first Super Bowl appearance inside the cozy confines of the Superdome, you have to go with Brett Favre in this contest. Favre couldn't stay away from the NFL because he wanted another shot at a Super Bowl. (Granted, having a couple of shots at his former team, the Green Bay Packers, also motivated him.) Now he gets to pursue that opportunity in a stadium that is (1) the site of his only Super Bowl victory and (2) about an hour from his hometown of Kiln, Miss. On top of all that, Favre's last trip to the NFC Championship Game -- a loss with Green Bay against the New York Giants two years ago -- has to be etched in his memory because his overtime interception led to that defeat. You think he'll be jacked? No question.
2. Which head coach has the edge in this game?
Give the nod to the Saints' Sean Payton because he was pulling out all the stops in his team's 45-14 divisional playoff win over the Arizona Cardinals. Payton was handing out bats to sell his players on the message of "bringing the wood." He put beloved Saints running back Deuce McAllister back in uniform and let him lead the other players onto the field as a team captain. Heck, Payton even had Saints running back Reggie Bush running with more ferocity than anybody has ever seen from him. Sure, some of those moves sound hokey. But they made a strong psychological impact on this team and you can bet Payton has a few more motivational tactics left in his bag.
No. As well as Bush played Saturday -- he had 217 all-purpose yards, including a 46-yard touchdown run and an 83-yard punt return for a score -- it's hard to remember the last time he put together two consecutive good games. He also touches the ball only about seven to 10 times a game. That's not enough opportunities for him to duplicate the success he had against the Cardinals. The upside is that Bush's big game gave the Vikings one more thing to worry about in this week's preparation. So even if the odds of him thrilling the home fans again on Sunday are low, he's already accomplished something equally useful for his team.
4. How excited should Vikings defensive end Jared Allen be for this contest?
He should be thrilled because he'll be facing Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod, a third-year veteran in his first season as a starter. Bushrod had it easy against the Cardinals because Arizona doesn't have an elite pass-rusher. Allen will be a different story. The three-time Pro Bowler had 14.5 sacks this season, and another huge one that forced a Tony Romo fumble in the first half of Sunday's divisional playoff win over Dallas. Let's also not forget that Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware gave Bushrod serious trouble in the Cowboys' regular-season win over New Orleans on Dec. 19 (Ware had two sacks and a forced fumble). The bottom line: Allen will have a field day if the Saints don't give Bushrod some help.
5. How much of an impact will the Saints' crowd have on this game?
It will be huge. The Cardinals weren't rattled by the Superdome din -- Arizona had no false starts and no problems dealing with the snap count -- but the Saints were bolstered by all those passionate fans. The New Orleans players fed off that energy and every big play only intensified it. The challenge for Minnesota is finding a way to diffuse it early. A 70-yard touchdown run by Arizona running back Tim Hightower sucked the air out of the place for a few minutes Saturday. It's hard to imagine the Vikings thriving if they don't keep that crowd quiet for longer stretches.
The Vikings' wide receiver probably won't have three touchdowns but New Orleans should be concerned. The Cowboys have better cornerbacks than the Saints and they had no answer for Rice, who is on his way to his first Pro Bowl. But you also can bet that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams isn't going to allow one receiver to terrorize his defense. Since the Saints don't have anything close to the pass rush that Dallas has, there will be immense pressure on Saints safety Darren Sharper and his fellow defensive backs to limit big plays. If they can't do that, this could get ugly.
7. Will the Saints' defense create as many problems for Minnesota as it did against Arizona?
Only if the Saints' offense gets off to another fast start. The Saints will tell you that their defense is better now because their secondary is healthier. While that is true, the defense also is far more effective when it's defending a lead. In those situations, the unit can pressure the quarterback more consistently and it also can go after turnovers more often. Playing with a lead also keeps the Saints from exposing their major weakness: run defense. There's a reason why Hightower rolled to a long touchdown run on the first play of the game. That kind of deflating moment could happen again Sunday if the Saints give a back like Adrian Peterson comparable running room.
8. Which Saints player will be the most valuable on Sunday?
Running back Pierre Thomas. The Saints had the right idea against Arizona -- they came out with a physical, aggressive attitude. That mentality will be even more critical against Minnesota, which means Thomas needs to do his thing. He looked solid against the Cardinals (52 yards on 13 carries) and his hard-charging style will help keep the Vikings' defense honest. Everybody knows the Minnesota defense feeds off its front seven. The more Thomas bangs -- and he claims to be feeling better after breaking some ribs in a loss to Tampa Bay on Dec. 27 -- the easier it's going to be for Brees to make plays in the passing game.
9. What is a potential weakness for the Vikings?
One NFC executive says it's defensive tackle Pat Williams. Despite playing in three Pro Bowls in the past four years, he hasn't been the same dominant interior presence. That may have something to do with the fact that he's 37 years old. It also might have something to do with an elbow injury that plagued him late in the season. Whatever the case, Williams' play has caught the eye of opponents. And the Saints certainly will try to test him if they suspect he can be exploited.
10. Who's going to win?
As strong as the Saints looked Saturday, the Vikings played even better Sunday. Minnesota manhandled a Dallas team that had been rolling. The Vikings scored 34 points on a defense that had given up 14 points in its past three games. You can't overlook those things at this time of year. Plus, Favre has been the biggest story in the NFL all season. Now he's about to add one more chapter to that tale when he leads the Vikings to the Super Bowl.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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