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This Could Be the Longest Day in Vikings History

As I begin typing this, it's about 9:30 AM on Saturday morning.  According to the countdown clock in the left-hand margin, we're still approximately 32 hours away from the kickoff of the 2009 NFC Championship Game between the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings.  If you thought time stood still between the regular season finale and the Dallas game, the time between now and kickoff is going to seem infinitely longer.

We're still awaiting word as to whether or not 2009 Offensive Rookie of the Year Percy Harvin is going to be on the team flight to New Orleans today.  The flight is scheduled to leave Minneapolis sometime today, and Harvin's physical condition will determine whether he's on the flight or not.  Harvin is once again battling the migraine headaches that have hit him off and on over the course of this season.  The headaches have only caused him to miss one game (Minnesota's 30-10 defeat of the Bengals in Week 14), and he made the trip to Carolina despite not feeling 100% as well.

I know that the Cowboys took Harvin out of the game last week with their kickoff specialist blasting the ball deep into the end zone every. . .er, both. . .times the Cowboys had to kick off.  (That's what happens when you only score three points.)  But it sure would be nice to have the kid out there for this one, whether it's returning kickoffs or lining up in the slot or the backfield or all of the other things that Percy brings to this team.  It's clearly a different offense when #12 is out on the field. . .while Darius Reynaud and Jaymar Johnson both have some talent, neither of them are on Percy Harvin's level.

After the jump, I'll take a look at the Saints' two losses this year.  (Yeah, I know, they actually lost three games, but their finale at Carolina doesn't count, as they were completely playing backups for that contest.)

The Saints started the season 13-0, which is obviously an impressive feat.  In Week 15, they played host to the Dallas Cowboys on a Saturday night NFL Network game.  The talk at that time centered around the Saints' chances for an undefeated season, obviously, but it was also a time when the media was still in their "can Dallas win in December" stage.  I figured that the Saints would win, the consensus was that the Saints would win, and that they would continue chugging on towards a 16-0 regular season.


But the Cowboys got off to a fast start, forcing the Saints to go three and out on their first possession, and taking all of 1:46 to go 79 yards for a touchdown, a 49-yard pass from Tony Romo to Miles Austin, silencing the raucous Superdome crowd.  A second three and out gave the Cowboys the ball at their own 40 after a punt, and they again streaked down the field, culminating their 60-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run by Marion Barber to give themselves a quick 14-0 lead.  That fast start helped them to go into the locker room with a 17-3 lead.

The other thing that the Cowboys' fast start did is force the Saints to become one-dimensional.  In the first half, the Saints ran the ball nine times for 48 yards, with those numbers being skewed by Reggie Bush's 29-yard run on the first play after the second Dallas TD.  For the game, the Saints ran the ball just 13 times for 65 yards.  Those are pretty impressive figures when one considers that, for all the ink their passing game gets (and rightfully so), their running game was also very impressive.

The other thing that the Cowboys did was to get after Drew Brees, which is a by-product of making the Saints' offense one-dimensional.  The Saints' offensive line only allowed 20 sacks in 2009, but they gave up four in their game against the Cowboys, led by DeMarcus Ware's 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.  Overall, the Cowboys forced the Saints into three turnovers while having none of their own, which is always a nice formula for success.  The other by-product of this was that the Saints inability to run consistently. . .coupled with the success Dallas was having on the ground against a weak New Orleans run defense (the Saints were 21st in the NFL against the rush in the regular season and allowed Marion Barber and Felix Jones to combine for 120 yards and 2 TDs). . .allowed Dallas to dominate the time of possession figures, as they held the ball for 36:26 to 23:34 for the Saints.

So, the keys to beating the Saints are easy. . .jump out early, stop them from running, get after Drew Brees.  Sounds like a pretty consistent formula, right?

Well, one would have thought so. . .until the Saints' Week 16 match-up against the 2-12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  In that game, it was the Saints that got off to a fast start, turning an opening drive stop and a Darren Sharper interception into two quick touchdowns and a 14-0 lead after the first quarter of play.  The Saints made that lead 17-0 before the Bucs managed to tack on a field goal on the last play of the first half, making the score 17-3.  (Man, that score sure does come up a lot, doesn't it?)

Despite being up 17-3, the Saints really didn't dominate the stat sheet in the first half.  They had a 203-189 advantage in yardage, and actually had fewer passing yards than Tampa did.  But the Bucs killed themselves with penalties (five for 35 yards) and had the turnover that was part of the difference.  The Saints ran the ball 13 times for 96 yards in the first half, which is impressive against any defense.

But the Bucs, to their credit, didn't roll over for the Saints.  Even after their first possession of the second half led them deep into New Orleans territory before rookie quarterback Josh Freeman threw his second interception of the day, a play that could have ripped Tampa's hearts out.  And things looked even worse after Thomas Morestad, the Saints' punter, pinned the Bucs at their own 2-yard line.

But then, something changed.

Freeman, the rookie out of Kansas State, led a great drive for the Bucs, taking seven plays to move the Bucs from the shadow of their own goal posts down to the Saints' 23 yard line.  That's when the Cadillac Williams show started, as the man with two reconstructed knees went in for a 23-yard touchdown run to make the score 17-10.  The Bucs forced a Marques Colston fumble on the next drive, but were forced to punt.  The Saints' next drive stalled, and Michael Spurlock took the subsequent Morestad punt and returned it 77 yards for the tying touchdown.  New Orleans then drove down and got into position for a potential game-winning field goal, but kicker Garrett Hartley duck-hooked one right into the lumberyard (™ Ty Webb), and the game went to overtime.

New Orleans never saw the ball in the extra session, as the Cadillac Williams show came to its thrilling conclusion.  Williams carried the ball nine times for 40 yards on Tampa's one OT possession, mixed in with a clutch 8-yard scramble on third and five by Freeman, and Connor Barth hit a field goal from 47 yards out to send the home crowd away stunned after a 20-17 defeat.

The key for the Bucs?  They never went away from their commitment to run the football, despite getting down 17-0 in fairly rapid fashion.  They ran 13 times for 62 yards in the first half, and 21 times for 114 yards in the second half.  Again, like the Cowboys did, they won the time of possession battle, 36:15 to 30:39 (and, yes, having the ball for almost seven minutes in overtime certainly helped).

If the Vikings want to win tomorrow, they absolutely must "shorten the game" with Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor.  As good as Minnesota's offense has been this year, I don't think they can afford to get into a shootout with the Saints.  They need to keep their offense on the field, keep the New Orleans offense on the sidelines, and take care of the football.  The Saints forced the second-most turnovers in the league with 39 (26 INT, 13 fumble recoveries).  Conversely, only two teams turned the ball over less frequently than Minnesota did (7 interceptions, 11 fumbles lost, 18 total turnovers).  On the other side, the Saints turned the ball over 28 times this year (12 interceptions, 16 lost fumbles), while the Vikings forced 24 turnovers (11 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries).

If the Vikings can shorten the game and win the turnover battle, they will be heading for Miami.  It's that simple.  Or should I say that saying it is simple.  Actually doing it is something different entirely.  But, hey. . .if a Dallas team that we destroyed and a Tampa team that went 3-13 this year can get the job done at the Superdome. . .

Why not us?