One week from tonight, the bullets start flying for real. That's when the New Orleans Saints will try to put the stigma of three consecutive seasons of 7-9 finishes behind them, as they travel to Minneapolis -- site of Super Bowl LII -- to open the 2017 NFL regular season against NFC opponent and their familiar foes from the past, the Minnesota Vikings on ESPN Monday Night Football.
The Saints have made 15 total visits to the city of Minneapolis dating all the way back to the 1970 regular season, and it hasn't always yielded positive results.
New Orleans only has a 3-12 record against the Vikings at their variety of different venues throughout the years (Metropolitan Stadium, the Metrodome, and now U.S. Bank Stadium); and that's a big part of the reason why Minnesota leads the all-time series between the two teams, 20-11.
The Saints have fared much better against Minnesota all-time when the games have been played in New Orleans (Tulane Stadium and the Superdome), where the Saints and Vikings have split (8-8) the 16 total contests held throughout the years in NOLA.
But the Saints have had the most success against Minnesota in the series since Drew Brees took over as the Saints QB in 2006.
In the 5 games that New Orleans has faced the Vikings with Brees running the offense, the Saints have a 4-1 record, which includes the unforgettable and heart-stopping overtime win over the Vikings in the January 2010 NFC Championship Game -- where then-kicker Garrett Hartley's 40-yard field goal sent New Orleans to its first and only Super Bowl.
In the 5 games total against the Vikings, Brees has completed 129 passes out of 188 attempts, for 1,469 yards and 12 TD's with only 2 interceptions. But of those 4 wins, 3 of them were in New Orleans.
However, the one time that Brees faced them in Minnesota, the results were "magnificent". The Saints whipped the Vikings in Week #14 of the 2011 season by a score of 42-20, which at that time was New Orleans' 6th straight win of an 8-game winning streak they were on to finish their 13-3 campaign that year.
In that game, Brees completed 32 of 40 passes for 412 yards and 5 TD passes, with a QB rating of 149.2 rating in an absolutely dominant performance by the Saints offense.
However, Brees and the Saints offense night not find it so easy when they travel to Minneapolis this time around.
The Vikings are always a tough opponent, but especially in their own home stadium.
They have one of the best defenses in the entire NFL at the moment, and they also have one of the better head coaches in the league, in Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer has long been considered one of the top defensive-minded coaches in the entire League, and he has assembled one hell of an outstanding group of players since taking over the Vikings in 2014.
The Vikings this year will return one of the best defenses in the entire NFL, that in 2016 saw them finish ranked #2 overall; as well as 5th overall in sacks (41) and 3rd in total yards allowed (314.9).
Minnesota returns a majority of the exact same playmakers from last year's defense; led by former LSU star defensive end Danielle Hunter, elite "lockdown" CB Xavier Rhodes and perhaps the best linebacker tandem in the entire NFL: All-Pro LB's Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, leading the way.
Which means the possibility of Brees having another "magnificent" game in Minnesota this year will be a difficult task, to say the very least.
The biggest reason for Minnesota's success? Creating turnovers.
In the 2016 season, Minnesota had 14 interceptions, 13 forced fumbles and 4 -- that's right -- FOUR defensive touchdowns.
Which goes without saying that when the Vikings defense is playing at its best and creating turnovers, they are very hard to beat.
But that still doesn't mean that it's impossible -- not by any stretch of the imagination.
The Vikings defense, for all of its success of the past few seasons, is human after all.
While the Saints defense actually looked pretty good this Pre-Season, that wasn't the case up in Minneapolis.
And for a Vikings defense that has been dominant the last couple of seasons, it would be the truth to say that they were anything but dominant -- which has some folks that follow the Vikings a bit concerned.
Now of course, judging a team based on the Pre-Season is an act of futility, since we already know that Pre-Season performances aren't always indicative of how a team (or a defensive unit) will play in the regular season when everyone starts off with a 0-0 win-loss record.
Scout.com Vikings beat writer John Holler notes that the Vikings haven’t shown the defensive dominance that has been their trademark during the Pre-Season, but the expectation is that "the switch will get flipped" and the Vikings defense will be lights-out as it has been the last couple of seasons.
Holler says that it won’t be easy to turn Minnesota's defense from vulnerable to invincible, but that any momentum the defense was looking to build will now have to wait until the games actually start to count next Monday Night beginning against the Saints --- because the momentum built in the Pre-Season by the Vikings 1st-team defense has been largely nonexistent.
In their four Pre-Season games, the Vikings 1st-team defense allowed more big plays than Zimmer is likely willing to accept.
And now he only has a week remaining to make the necessary adjustments and still be able to get ready for Brees and former Vikings All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson -- who just this weekend told Minneapolis Star-Tribune writer Mark Craig that he wants to "stick it" to Minnesota.
“In my mind, we’re starting and ending the season in Minnesota,” Peterson told Craig, referring to Super Bowl LII; which will be played February 4th, 2018 at U.S. Bank Stadium, also site of the Saints-Vikings contest next Monday Night.
“Of course I want to stick it to them. I want to stick it to everyone we play. But going back to Minnesota, playing the Vikings? Yeah, I want to stick it to them.”
There isn't any doubt that Saints fans would love to see Peterson and the rest of the Saints offense be able to "stick it" to the Vikings defense that hasn't been at its sharpest during the Pre-Season, but the Saints offense has its own vulnerabilities, particularly at the WR position.
The Saints of course will be missing the services of #2 WR Willie Snead, who will be serving the 1st of his 3-game suspension that he was given by the League on Friday for an off-season DUI arrest.
It's hoped that other players like Ted Ginn, Jr., Brandon Coleman, or even the newly signed rookie UDFA Austin Carr, whom the Saints claimed off waivers yesterday from the New England Patriots, can ease the burden of Snead's absence; but the Vikings likely aren't going to be intimidated either way --- no matter who the Saints put out there.
The fact that the Vikings defense is this close to the regular season and that they still haven’t been on their "A-Game" might seem a bit troubling to some, but absolutely no way should the Saints take that as a sign of what they will see next Monday Night.
They will be ready and they will be well-prepared for Drew Brees and the Saints offense; and you can take that to the bank (no pun intended).
Can Brees and the Saints offense be "magnificent" in Minnesota again, just like the last time that they were there back in December of 2011?
If they can just be "good enough" to come away with a victory against an always-tough Vikings defense in September of 2017, that's all that will really matter......