The New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings in name only resemble the combatants who squared off in the regular-season opener Sept. 11. Both teams have changed so much that the first game tape barely was applicable, if it was applicable at all, for Sunday's rematch in their NFC Divisional playoff game. Maybe, that fact is better for the Saints, who came up short in a 29-19 loss, than it is for the Vikings. Here are a few items for New Orleans' checklist as it attempts to advance to the NFC Championship Game for the third time under Coach Sean Payton.
- Seemed like old times in the Saints' Wild Card victory over Carolina, with Drew Brees (23 for 33 for 376 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception) shredding an opponent's secondary in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It'll be difficult to repeat that level of efficiency and production against the Vikings, the league's No. 1 defense in scoring (15.8), yards allowed (275.9) and third-down efficiency (25.3 percent). But the Saints do need this: Receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. have to win their share of battles when the Vikings play man-to-man, which may be often. Minnesota All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes very well could shadow Thomas and if that's the case, Thomas, who loves challenges like that, has to be up to the task. Ginn's field-stretching ability also will be necessary to loosen up the Vikings. Thomas and Ginn each topped 100 receiving yards against Carolina, so Minnesota is well aware of how much a secondary can be hurt by them.
- The Saints have done a great job of minimizing their losses, some significant, this season. They have to do it again Sunday; left guard Andrus Peat (broken fibula) is out, and Senio Kelemete is in. The positive for the Saints is that Kelemete truly is a sixth starting offensive lineman; due to injuries, this will be his ninth start this season, so chemistry shouldn't be an issue. That's meaningful in an environment where it figures to be difficult to hear.
- New Orleans hasn't topped 100 rushing yards in its last three games and while that hasn't been a huge detriment – it won two of the three – it's impactful in that the Saints haven't run more than 60 offensive plays in any of the games and have lost the time of possession battle twice. It's a sign of respect that defenses have gone to great lengths to take away Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, and the Vikings only surrender 83.6 rushing yards per game. That won't deter the Saints from trying, and trying doesn't guarantee production. But if New Orleans is in the 25-30 rushing attempts range, that'll be a good thing. Too, the screen game could be significant; it's a pass, but it's as much a part of the run game as a handoff and it might help slow the Vikings' pass rush.
- Red-zone efficiency is critical, and it's something that the Saints definitely will have to improve upon in the rematch. New Orleans settled for four field goals in the 29-19, season-opening loss – including makes from 21, 24 and 20 yards – and went 1 for 5 in the red zone. When the Saints reach the red zone, they have to score touchdowns. Field goals are nice, but touchdowns – or, the lack thereof – was the difference in the previous game.
- Is Case Keenum ready for this? That's a question that the Saints have to force the Vikings' quarterback to answer. Keenum was phenomenal after Sam Bradford was injured in the season opener, completing 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. But he never has started a playoff game, and the Saints quickly will find out if he can be rattled under the circumstances. We know defensive end Cam Jordan is going to play his part – the first-team All-Pro was as monstrous in the Wild Card game as he was during the regular season – and New Orleans got great interior push from defensive tackles Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata against Carolina. Keenum is mobile, so boxing him in is important.