<
>

Saints have come a long way in between trips to Minnesota

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints’ last trip to Minnesota couldn’t have gone much worse. But they’ve come a long way since that 29-19 flop in Week 1.

Since then, they have won 11 regular-season games, a NFC South title and a 31-26 playoff opener against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday that was a little bit too thrilling in the final minutes.

They have also developed an identity. And what rookie running back Alvin Kamara called “swag.”

“It’s confidence,” Kamara added, as veteran running back Mark Ingram nodded next to him.

“We believe in each other, man,” Ingram said. “It’s that confidence we have in ourselves to perform and to do well. We know who we are.

“I don’t think we knew who we were in Week 1, but we know who we are now.”

Minutes later, in a different room, Saints quarterback Drew Brees said virtually the exact same thing -- adding that the first trip to Minnesota “feels like 10 years ago.”

“We didn’t have an identity yet,” Brees said, explaining that the team was just coming together then, when they started 0-2 with lopsided losses at Minnesota and home against the New England Patriots (which don’t look nearly as bad in retrospect).

“Now we’ve been through some big games together,” Brees said. “We stuck together. We knew that we were really close to getting our first win and just kind of establishing that identity. And we were able to rattle off eight in a row after those two losses. So we’re a completely different team. We’ve found our bread and butter. We’ve won in a lot of different ways. We’ve got a lot of confidence.

“We also understand the type of team we’re going to play up there.”

That game does feel like 10 years ago. It was all about Adrian Peterson and the Saints’ awful defensive play -- both of which have become things of the past, with Peterson being traded to the Arizona Cardinals and the Saints drastically improving their play in the secondary (at least until Sunday’s game against Carolina, that is).

Unfortunately for the Saints, there was nothing fluky about the Vikings’ Week 1 performance.

Minnesota went 13-3 this season, despite losing quarterback Sam Bradford (who threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns in that game) and running back Dalvin Cook (who ran for 127) to injuries.

The Vikings have the No. 1 defense in the NFL in both yards allowed (275.9 per game) and points allowed (15.8 per game). They’re ranked No. 2 against the run and No. 2 against the pass. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who shut down Atlanta's Julio Jones this year and likely will try to do the same against the Saints’ Michael Thomas, is a first-team All-Pro. So is safety Harrison Smith. Pass-rushing defensive end Everson Griffen is a second-team All-Pro.

And there was nothing fluky about the way they shut down Peterson, Ingram and Kamara all at once (they combined for a total of 53 rushing yards on 19 carries).

It seems impossible to think the Vikings can be as stifling now that Ingram and Kamara have become one of the best backfield duos in NFL history and now that Brees just had his best performance of the season with 376 yards and two touchdowns against Carolina. But they’ll likely provide the stiffest defensive test the Saints have faced since Week 1.

Likewise, the Saints’ secondary has become much better, led by rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, rookie free safety Marcus Williams and second-year cornerback Ken Crawley (who was a healthy inactive in Week 1 before the Saints realized the error of their ways).

But if they make the kinds of mistakes they made against Carolina on Sunday, when they let Cam Newton throw for 349 yards -- often to some wide-open pass-catchers -- they’re at risk for a repeat performance of Week 1, when second-team All-Pro receiver Adam Thielen had nine catches for 157 yards and receiver Stefon Diggs had seven catches for 93 yards and two TDs.

“That was the first time we had a young defense that was still learning,” said Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had a monster game Sunday that followed up a monster regular season that earned him a first-team All-Pro nod himself. “We’ve [jelled], we’ve clearly turned the corner. Now we’re into the playoffs and we’ve got bigger and better goals.”

Like trying to head back to Minnesota for a third time next month, when it will host Super Bowl LII in U.S. Bank Stadium.