Repeat after me: This is not a revenge game.
Whether or not you believe the New Orleans Saints, that's the approach they publicly are taking for their Sunday night game against Minnesota at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Saints (5-1) lost twice at U.S. Bank last season – the season-opener and season-ender, a 29-24 decision to the Vikings as time expired in their NFC divisional playoff game.
But new team, new season is the prevailing mantra and the Saints, winners of five straight, certainly haven't appeared to experience anything resembling a hangover from the way the 2017 season ended.
A victory assures that the Saints will remain in first place in the NFC South Division, and keep them in hot pursuit of having the best record in the conference. Playing for those stakes, in a nationally televised, prime-time game, should be motivation enough.
On to the keys:
- The Saints' secondary had better be prepared. Minnesota has one of the best one-two punches in the league at receiver. Adam Thielen (67 catches, 822 yards, five touchdowns) has set an NFL record for consecutive 100-yard receiving games to open a season – he's currently at seven – and Stefon Diggs (48-468-3) etched his name into Vikings history with his game-winning touchdown against the Saints in the playoffs. New Orleans has had its struggles in the secondary this season, but has improved lately. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore is back in flypaper mode and the Saints bolstered the unit this week with the addition of cornerback Eli Apple. It'd be a lot to ask of Apple to arrive Tuesday night and be a standout Sunday night, but this is the NFL and the Saints didn't make the trade so that they could ease him in. He should be able to help. The communication issues have to be solved and when plays on the ball can be made (Lattimore twice couldn't produce an interception against Baltimore), they have to be made.
- Numbers-wise, the Vikings (4-2-1) aren't as stingy as last season defensively. Points allowed are up (23.6 per game, compared to 15.8) and so are yards (345.9, from 275.9). But don't be deceived, this still is a very good defense: as in, it only allows opponents to convert on 23 percent of the time on third down, the lowest rate in the league. The Saints convert 42.3 percent of the time, 11th-best in the league, but were a combined 6 of 20 (30 percent) in the two games against Minnesota last year. The conversion rate needs to be better this time, in order for the Saints to maintain control of the clock and, maybe, wear down that Viking defense.
- It's always an interesting "watch" when a team has a No. 1 cornerback who's willing to take on Saints receiver Michael Thomas one-on-one. Minnesota's Xavier Rhodes is such a corner, and you just know that Thomas is eager for the matchup. Thomas caught seven passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns in the playoff game last season, and if he isn't the most physical receiver in the league, I'm not sure who is. This will be a scrap, with neither player backing down.
- The Saints' offensive line was dealt a blow with the injury to reserve Josh LeRibeus. He can play either guard position (he has started at left guard three times this season) and he's a veteran of 50 NFL games. Cameron Tom is next man up, and he filled in well for LeRibeus against the Ravens. Andrus Peat is back to start at left guard, and Larry Warford is ready at right guard. But if either has an issue, Tom will have an opportunity to play for the second straight week. Meanwhile, line play always is a critical facet of the game. Across the board, the Saints have been great (left tackle Terron Armstead has been a wall) and they'll have to continue to be great against a very good Vikings pass rush (21 sacks). Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the league under pressure, and pressure will be applied. As always, screen passes and swing passes to the running backs could be a good remedy.
- New Orleans wasn't very successful in getting to Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco on Sunday (one sack, by defensive end Alex Okafor). They can, and should, be better against the Vikings. Kirk Cousins has been sacked 19 times and pressuring him is paramount. He's completing 70 percent of his passes. If he's too comfortable, it's going to be a long game.