Having figured out what to do against Minnesota's vaunted defense, the problem shifts to the other side: how do you stop the Vikings' offense?
Favre or Peterson? It's a pick your poison sort of situation. Do you sell out to stop the run and let Favre throw daggers...or do you stop Favre and let Peterson club you to death? Who do you concentrate on?
The answer turns out to be surprisingly simple: Favre. All the way. In a heartbeat.
You only need to look at two stats to figure this one out. The first is Favre's: he has a 107.2 passer rating. That's only a bit behind Brees, who leads the NFL. Favre may be 40, and he may be prone to the occasional brain-fart, but he's still lethal. Ignore him at your peril.
But can you ignore the Vikings' running game? Isn't it every bit as dangerous as their passing? Well...no, actually. Minnesota ranks a decent 13th in rushing (the Saints, again, are better: they're 6th); but, as I pointed out in a similar situation when reviewing the Vikings' D, that ranking is based on a questionable stat: total yards. A better stat is average yards per rush, and here Minnesota's weakness is exposed: they rank 19th, tied with (among others) Arizona. They rush much more frequently--in fact, they had only one fewer attempt last year than the Saints--but they don't run the ball any more efficiently than the Cardinals do.
If you wanted to compare the upcoming NFC Championship game with any other games this year, I think the two best ones would be last week's victory over Arizona, and the home game against Carolina. In both of those games, we gave up a big run early, and held the line against the run well for the rest of the way.
In week 9, Carolina's DeAngelo Williams ripped off a 66-yard TD on the second play from scrimmage. From that point on, the Panthers averaged 3 yards per carry. And Arizona's Tim Hightower took the first play from scrimmage 70 yards for a TD...but from that point on, Arizona averaged 2.2 yards per carry. If we can play the run like this against the Vikings, it means conceding a single score in order to shut down half of Minnesota's offense. I don't consider that a bad trade-off.
That leaves Favre. The first thing to point out is that in the aforementioned games, Warner and Delhomme had passer ratings of 73.4 and 77.2, respectively. The Saints gave up no TDs and made one interception. Nobody is going to accuse Jake Delhomme of being a decent stand-in for Brett Favre in this scenario...but Kurt Warner? Much closer.
Against Carolina, Delhomme had one of his better days in large part, I am sure, because the Saints were primarily defending against the run. Against Arizona, Kurt Warner had one of his worst days in large part, I am sure, because the Saints were primarily defending against him. The Saints can pull off the same performance against Favre, I think--in large part because although Minnesota has the better quarterback, Arizona has the better receiver corps. The question is, if we spend most of our energy and attention shutting down Favre, what will Adrian Peterson do?
And that brings us back to the question of Minnesota's running game. Is it more like Arizona's--a merely decent attack--or is it more like the dominating attack of Carolina? And I think the Saints are in a good position to judge between the two. In 2008, the Saints held Peterson to a 1.5 yard average! When have we ever held DeAngelo Williams to anything like that? It's my opinion that Minnesota's reputation as a running team is firmly based on the past, and not on the present reality. Peterson's rushing average has been dropping steadily from his rookie year, while his fumbling has gotten worse. I would feel a lot better if the Saints decided to concentrate on stopping Favre first, and then worry about Peterson.
So the big question is: how DO you stop Favre? Well, Arizona did it, oddly enough, by stopping Peterson: by putting the Vikings in 3rd-and-long situations and then flooding the downfield zones with defenders. Favre could complete passes underneath, but they went nowhere. But they also got good pressure on him, sacking him three times. Carolina was even better: they sacked him four times, and scared Brad Childress so bad he wanted to yank Favre to save his skin. Pittsburgh also pressured Favre relentlessly, sacking him three times and running two turnovers back for scores.
And that seems to be the way to beat Favre: pressure = turnovers. Against Arizona, he threw two interceptions. Against Pittsburgh, he threw an interception and lost a fumble--and both resulted immediately in Steeler scores. Against Carolina, he threw only one interception, but had statistically his second-worst performance of the year.
So the Saints' prescription on defense is the perfect mirror image of the prescription on offense: get pressure on Favre. The Panthers, Cardinals, and Steelers did it mostly with pressure from the outside against left tackle Bryant McKinnie (three-quarters of their sacks came around this side) using mostly their ends and outside linebackers. For the Saints, that means Will Smith needs to step up big time. Weakside backer Scott Shanle and cornerback Tracy Porter will probably also be called upon to blitz, and they have to be able to get to Favre enough to rattle him, even if they don't get the sack.
Gregg Williams may also play a high proportion of 3-4 in this game, since both Arizona and Pittsburgh wreaked havoc with Arizona's protection schemes.
Still, we can't hope to shut down the Vikings completely. They'll get their points, but we'll have a strong say in how many points that'll be. I'm saying no more than 20.
Final score: Saints 37, Vikings 20.