What We Learned
Three things we learned after the Saints-Vikings game
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
MINNEAPOLIS -- Getting touchdowns from all the usual suspects, the Minnesota Vikings scored early and often Saturday at the Metrodome, ending the New Orleans Saints' storybook season, 34-16, in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Here are three observations from the game:
1. If the Vikings do indeed grace the Super Bowl this season, they owe Tampa Bay kicker Martin Gramatica a huge display of gratitude.
Oh, how the NFC playoffs might have turned out differently had Gramatica been able to convert that potential game-winning 40-yard field-goal attempt late in regulation at Green Bay on Christmas Eve.
If Tampa Bay beats the Packers, they're the No. 2 seed in the NFC, home for the divisional round, and coming off a bye week fresh and rested. It would have been the Vikings instead who would have had to truck off to frosty Philadelphia for the wild-card round, where quarterback Daunte Culpepper's gimpy sprained right ankle would have no doubt been more of a factor last week.
But with those fates reversed, Tampa Bay is long gone and the Vikings look well-placed to make their long-delayed Super Bowl run.
And if the Vikings keep showing up on defense as effectively as they did in Saturday's 34-16 NFC divisional-round drubbing of New Orleans on Saturday, Minnesota might just be able to throw a scare into the eventual AFC champion. Against the red-hot Saints, Minnesota picked the perferct time to turn in its most complete game of the season, clicking on both sides of the ball throughout. The re-appearance of Minnesota's AWOL defense was obviously the most welcomed sign in the Metrodome.
In giving up just 16 points, Minnesota stopped a three-game defensive slump that saw it surrender more than 30 points and 400 yards per outing in consecutive losses to St. Louis, Green Bay and Indianapolis. The 103 points and more than 1,300 yards allowed in those games qualified as the worst three-game stretch for a Vikings defense since the final three games of the 1984 Les Steckel era.
The Saints finished with a deceiving 355 yards of offense, and just 123 of those came on 39 first-half plays (a 3.1 average), when the game was still competitive at 17-3, Minnesota. By getting out to an early lead, the Vikings were able to negate the Saints running game for the most part, holding New Orleans to just 69 rushing yards on 17 attempts (4.1). Even running back Ricky Williams' return from a broken fibula didn't spark the Saints. He totaled 14 yards on six carries, with a long gain of 7 yards.
While the Vikings' defense remains susceptible to giving up some yardage, Minnesota's road to the Super Bowl is no longer blocked by one of the pass-happy attacks that wreaked havoc on its secondary in December. St. Louis, Indianapolis and Green Bay exposed Minnesota's every defensive flaw last month, but the two other remaining NFC teams -- Philadelphia and the New York Giants -- do not feature offenses built around their passing games or figure to put the ball up 40 times a game.
Given its late-season defensive liabilities, fate has smiled on Minnesota this postseason. Despite having a defense that doesn't intimidate, if the Vikings can either contain Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia or limit the Giants' power running game next Sunday, Minnesota will disprove the axiom that only teams with solid defenses make it to the Super Bowl.
2. Aaron Brooks or Jeff Blake? Let the debate begin.
Though the Saints have already said that Blake will go to camp as their starting quarterback, once he rehabilitates from his season-ending broken foot, we're not buying it. Blake was playing winning, but unspectacular ball when he was lost. But Brooks has exhibited a knack for the spectacular, and has shown too much ability since taking over for the injured Blake in mid-November to return to the bench. New Orleans has to give him a chance to win the job next summer.
Brooks went 4-3 as the Saints starter, led the team into the playoffs for the first time since 1992, and was one of the big reasons behind the Saints' first playoff victory in their 34-year history.
Brooks has an exciting collection of skills that makes him perfectly suited for the NFL's current style of offense. Big and strong enough to take a hit, but fast enough to make things happen in the open field, Brooks has proven himself an adept play-maker when things break down in front of him. He's much more elusive than Blake, whose primary strength is the long ball. Put into head-to-head competition with Blake, odds are Brooks will win out over the course of a season, presenting New Orleans with a problem. Blake didn't sign with the Saints last offseason to sit the bench, and in the past hasn't always played the happy camper in the No. 2 role (see Cincinnati and the Neil O'Donnell era).
The Saints would be better shopping a healthy Blake this off-season trying to recoup some of those many draft picks they surrendered the past two seasons in the Ricky Williams trade. Besides Brad Johnson and Trent Green, Blake would be one of the most proven commodities on the market, and his price tag could get inflated due to the continuing shortage of quality veteran quarterbacking. If the Saints go with Blake, forcing Brooks back into the No. 2 role, they could retard his development and risk him growing disenchanted with his lack of opportunity. Brooks may have shown more than the Saints ever dreamed this season, but for New Orleans, there's no easy way to put the genie back in the bottle. It should be Brooks' job to lose.
3. The Saints did exactly what they couldn't afford to do in the Metrodome. They let the Vikings' big three -- Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Robert Smith -- kill them with big plays. Minnesota's talented trioka combined for all four of its touchdowns.
The quick strike is Minnesota's offensive calling card, and thanks to the porous New Orleans pass defense, the Vikings were ringing up large chunks of yardage throughout the game. What little chance the Saints might have had at pulling the upset dissipated in the wake of that trend.
Victimized the most were New Orleans cornerback Kevin Mathis -- who allowed touchdowns to both Moss and Carter -- and free safety Darren Perry, whose miscalculation on the Vikings' first touchdown got Minnesota off and running.
Moss proved again that he can make just a play or two a game, take the other 58 snaps off, and still have a huge role in determining the outcome. His only two catches both went for touchdowns -- from 53 and 68 yards -- with each coming on the third Vikings offensive play of both halves. His two-catch, 121-yard performance made him the first Viking to ever have two 50-yard-plus receptions in the same playoff game, and was his franchise-best third career 100-yard game in the postseason.
Carter's yardage didn't come in portions quite so large, but his 34-yard first-quarter reception set up one Vikings' field goal, and his 17-yard second-quarter touchdown reception in the back left corner of the end zone lifted Minnesota into a comfortable 17-3 halftime lead. Along with Moss, Carter's eight-reception, 120-yard day made the duo the first pair of Vikings receiver to ever post consecutive 100-yard playoff games.
Smith chipped in with a first-quarter 20-yard reception, a later 25-yard run and his fourth-quarter two-yard touchdown rush iced the Minnesota win. New Orleans' defensive blueprint for victory sounded simple enough. The Saints had to keep the Vikings' big three in front of them all day. But they got behind them far too often, and almost from the outset, the Saints were doing all the trailing.Don Banks covers pro football for CNNSI.com.