8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Vikings -3.5, Over/Under: 48
Playoff Hopefuls look to put disappointing campaigns in the past as the New Orleans Saints travel to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota to battle Vikings. While both teams missed out on the postseason in 2016 and managed to bolster their ranks over the past few months, the major storyline heading into this particular Season Opener is the return of Adrian Peterson, who for the first time in his professional career will be donning a uniform other than the Vikings’ signature Purple and Yellow. Peterson, the 2012 NFL MVP and three-time Rushing Champion was released during the Offseason after enduring an injury-riddled term in which he was relegated to a mere three games, rushing for just seventy-two yards on thirty-seven carries dogged by an ailing ankle and knee. At the age of thirty-one the writing was on the wall, as the franchise preferred to go in a different direction, brining to an end one of the best ten-year stretches by any Tailback; from 2007 to 2016, Peterson rushed for 11,747 Yards (95.5 Y/G) and ninety-seven Touchdowns, averaging a very healthy 4.9 Yards per Carry. Now, the seven-time Pro Bowler finds himself in a completely different situation, serving in a platoon of capable rushers in one of the league’s most prolific Offenses. Indeed, Peterson has never featured in an attack quite like this, while Sean Payton has never had a Tailback quite like him. Since Payton came to the Big Easy back in 2006, New Orleans hasn’t finished below sixth in Total Offense, leading the NFL in that particular category on six occasions. Granted, a lot of that has had to do with Drew Brees, who even at the ripe old age of thirty-eight is still as prolific a Quarterback as you’ll find. 2016 was more of the same for the ten-time Pro Bowler, completing 70.0% of his Attempts for a league-best 5,208 Yards (7.18 NY/A), thirty-seven Touchdowns and fifteen Interceptions, the seventh time that No. 9 has led the league in Passing Yards. This may finally be the season that challenges his onslaught, for Brees will be without a number of reliable weapons in the early goings of 2017; New Orleans dealt vertical threat Brandin Cooks (78 REC, 1,173 YDS, 8 TD) to the New England Patriots in a deal shortly before the NFL Draft, while Willie Snead (72 REC, 895 YDS, 4 TD) has been suspended for the first three contests for violating the league’s Substance Abuse Policy. However, despite all the fireworks, the Saints still only managed to finish with a 7-9 record, the fourth time in the last five years that they’ve fell to that mark, while missing the Playoffs in each instance. Surely, he can’t keep this up forever, and given that Payton’s potential departure has been a hot topic in New Orleans for two years now, there is a real sense of urgency to get this team back into a competitive state. The problem though, continues to be the defense, which over the last few years has been truly abysmal; this unit was cringe-worthy in 2016, allowing 28.4 Points (31st Overall) on 375.4 Total Yards (27th Overall), including a league-worst 273.8 Yards through the air on 7.32 Net Yards per Attempt (31st Overall), with twenty-seven Touchdown in comparison to only nine Interceptions. Due to perennially being handcuffed by the Salary Cap, Management has found it very difficult to bring in established veterans on this side of the ball, forcing them to rely on youth and inexperience, which has burned them over and over again in the past. If you truly want proof as to why this team has consistently muddled around .500 for the past five years despite fielding an elite Offense, just check out these numbers; since 2014, they have ranked thirty-first, thirty-first, and twenty-seventh in Total Defense, and twenty-eighth, thirty-second, and thirty-first in Points Allowed.
Meanwhile, 2016 was very much a story of two seasons for the Vikings, who despite an ambitious 5-0 start to the campaign, floundered after their Bye Week, losing eight out of their final eleven outings. Some would say that the fact that they made it that far should be considered a success, given the amount of adversity they faced. Starting Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater shredded multiple ligaments in his knee during Training Camp, forcing the Franchise to acquire Sam Bradford shortly before the Regular Season. Longtime Tailback Adrian Peterson hurt his knee and ankle midway through Week Two, and would only feature in three games all season. Offensive Coordinator abruptly retired midway through the season. And if that wasn’t enough, Head Coach Mike Zimmer missed time after undergoing yet another surgery on his eye. Needless to say it was quite a trying year for the Vikings and their Fan Base. With the proverbial deck stacked against them early, they fought hard, but ultimately succumbed to their shortcomings. With that said, there were a number of reasons for optimism heading into 2017, none more so than the play of Bradford, which particularly in the first half of the year was absolutely inspiring. For a guy that had to work with an abridged version of the Playbook before enduring a change in playcalling, and operating behind a porous Offensive (Thirty-Eight Sacks), the former No. One Overall Pick carried Minnesota’s Offense, completing 71.6% of his Attempts for 3,877 Yards (6.11 NY/A), twenty Touchdowns and just five Interceptions. One would have to believe that with a full Training Camp under his belt, coupled with the addition of some fresh young faces (especially Rookie Tailback Dalvin Cook and second-year Wideout Stefon Diggs), the Offense should be a much more efficient and balanced group. Then there’s the defense, which was the glue that kept this team from falling apart throughout the term. Zimmer’s charges yielded just 19.2 Points (6th Overall) on 314.9 Total Yards (3rd Overall), including 106.9 Yards versus the Run (20th Overall) on 4.2 Yards per Carry (17th Overall), and another 207.9 Yards against the Pass (3rd Overall) on 5.6 Net Yards per Attempt (2nd Overall). Oh, and these guys made more than their fair share of big plays, forcing twenty-seven Turnovers (7th Overall), including thirteen Fumble Recoveries (4th Overall) and fourteen Interceptions (12th Overall), returning two of each for scores. Oh, and they also amassed forty-one Sacks. Zimmer has stocked this unit with playmakers on all levels, sending five of their number to the Pro Bowl last year; among them are Safety Harrison Smith (81 TKL, 2.0 SK, 2 PD, 2 FR), Defensive Tackle Linval Joseph (77 TKL, 4.0 SK, 3 FF), Linebackers Anthony Barr (70 TKL, 2.0 SK, 4 PD, 1 FF) and Eric Kendricks (109 TKL, 2.5 SK, 1 INT, 1 TD, 9 PD), and Edge Rusher Everson Griffen (8.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 TD).