NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (0-0)
at MINNESOTA VIKINGS (0-0)
Kickoff: Monday, 7:10 p.m. ET
Line: Minnesota -3.0, Total: 48.0
The Saints’ high-octane passing game takes on the Vikings’ outstanding defense in 2017’s first Monday Night Football matchup.
As could be said for most of head coach Sean Payton’s years in New Orleans, the 2016 Saints had more than enough offense to win but their defense was rarely able to get stops. New Orleans finished 7-9 for the third-straight season. 38-year-old QB Drew Brees is still a top-five NFL quarterback, and he may be entering his final season with the Saints since his contract is up after this winter. He’s surrounded by more than enough talent on offense, but the defense needs their rookies to step up right away. Even a slight improvement on D would make the Saints a playoff team. The Vikings started 2016 looking like a Super Bowl contender with five-straight wins, but ended up stumbling to an 8-8 finish. The offensive line was the main problem, and Minnesota addressed the issue in free agency. While QB Sam Bradford is more of a game-manager than a playmaker, he’ll benefit from better pass-blocking and the addition of second-round draft pick RB Dalvin Cook. The Vikings defense is as good as any in the NFL, especially in the secondary, where Xavier Rhodes has quietly entered the conversation for the league’s best cornerback. These teams last met three years ago in New Orleans, where the Saints were 9.5-point home favorites and won 20-9 on the strength of Brees’ arm. New Orleans is 1-9 SU & 3-7 ATS in September games since 2014, but 6-7 SU & 10-2-1 ATS as a road underdog of three points or more in the past three seasons. Since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in 2014, Minnesota is 7-3 SU & ATS in September and 12-4 SU & ATS as a home favorite of fewer than seven points. Saints starting CB Delvin Breaux is out with a broken leg, while Minnesota will be without DT Sharrif Floyd (knee) and WR Michael Floyd (suspension).
The 2016 Saints offense led the NFL in yardage (426 yards per game) and were the second-highest scoring team (29.3 points per game). QB Drew Brees (5,208 yards, 37 TD, 15 INT) continues to be elite into his late 30s and has barely been affected by his declining arm strength. With WR Brandin Cooks traded to New England, WR Michael Thomas (92 receptions, 1,137 yards, 9 TD) becomes the alpha dog in the passing game. WR Willie Snead (72, 895, 4) will take on a larger role as the primary slot receiver, and WR Ted Ginn (54, 752, 4 with Carolina) was signed to be a field-stretching deep threat. The backfield is also stocked with talent, as RB Mark Ingram (1,362 yards from scrimmage, 10 TD) has matured into a three-down back, and future Hall-of-Famer RB Adrian Peterson joins the fray. Versatile rookie RB Alvin Kamara has star potential if either of the veterans misses time. The Saints defense showed signs of life late last year, but finished among the bottom five in points allowed for the third-straight season (28.4 points per game, 31st in the NFL). After allowing the third-most yards per pass attempt last year (7.9), New Orleans nabbed CB Marshon Lattimore and S Marcus Williams with their first two draft picks. They’ll need to contribute right away with starting CB Delvin Breaux breaking his leg in the preseason. The linebacking group is lackluster, though third-round draft pick LB Alex Anzalone, a first-round talent with an injury history, could emerge as the best playmaker on that level. DE Cameron Jordan (7.5 sacks) was the lone bright spot on defense last season, and 2016 first-rounder DT Sheldon Rankins (4 sacks in nine games) showed promise while being eased back from a broken leg.
No team had a more glaring weakness in one unit than the Vikings did at offensive line last season, and free agent OTs Riley Reiff (formerly with Detroit) and Mike Remmers (Carolina) are huge upgrades. QB Sam Bradford (3,877, 20 TD, 5 INT) is a conservative passer who set a single-season record for completion percentage (71.6%) last season, but rarely had the time in the pocket or the receiving talent to make splash plays. WRs Stefon Diggs (84 receptions, 903 yards, 3 TD) and Adam Thielen (69, 967, 5) emerged as a serviceable starting tandem last season, while TE Kyle Rudolph (83, 840, 7) is a sure-handed possession option. With RB Adrian Peterson moving on, second-round draft pick RB Dalvin Cook takes over as the most talented player on the offense. He may have to split playing time with RBs Latavius Murray (1,052 yards from scrimmage, 12 TD with Oakland) and Jerick McKinnon (794 yards from scrimmage, 4 TD), but Cook should be the focal point of the offense more weeks than not. Minnesota had the NFL’s 3rd-ranked defense in 2016 (315 yards per game), allowing 19.2 points per game (6th in the NFL). DEs Danielle Hunter (12.5 sacks), Everson Griffen (8 sacks) and Brian Robison (7.5 sacks) make the pass-rush lethal, while DT Linval Joseph is a space-eater in the run game. LBs Eric Kendricks (70 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 9 passes defended) and Anthony Barr have developed into a solid tandem. In the secondary, S Harrison Smith and CB Xavier Rhodes are among the top performers at their positions, the latter allowing a league-best 42% completion percentage and 39.2 QB Rating on passes thrown his way last year. As a team, Minnesota allowed 6.1 yards per pass attempt (2nd in the NFL) and 208 passing yards per game (3rd).