Vikings stay focused on task at hand against Saints

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — For fans of the Minnesota Vikings, at least the ones old enough to drive, there’s a score to be settled with the New Orleans Saints.

Eight years ago, the last Minnesota team considered a strong Super Bowl contender was on the verge of victory in New Orleans in the NFC championship game despite four earlier turnovers inside the raucous Superdome.

That was until the infamous 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty with 19 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter pushed the Vikings out of field goal range and preceded Brett Favre’s ill-fated throw across his body that was intercepted by Tracy Porter to force overtime and steer the Saints toward the franchise’s only title. The bitterness in Minnesota toward the team in black and gold only increased two years later when an NFL investigation concluded then-New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams encouraged a bounty system designed to financially reward players for hitting and injuring Favre.

There’s only one player, defensive end Brian Robison, who’s still around from that season, however. That painful stumble at the end of the most important game the Vikings have played in almost two decades doesn’t mean much at all to the guys on the 2017 roster.

“We just have to come out and play our game, regardless of who’s mad at who for whatever reason,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said.

Head coach Mike Zimmer was actually sitting in the seats that evening, with his defensive coordinator duties for Cincinnati on break with the Bengals already eliminated from the playoffs. His son, Adam Zimmer, was an assistant linebackers coach for New Orleans that year.

“I was just sitting there observing. I wasn’t really rooting for anybody or anything like that,” Zimmer said, before revealing his drink of choice on Bourbon Street that day: “I had some of those hurricanes.”

For these Vikings, the Saints simply represent their first obstacle to being the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. They had to wait until the very end of their bye week to find out who they would be facing in the divisional round game, with the Saints topping the Carolina Panthers 31-26 in New Orleans on Sunday night.

“I think they understand the magnitude of where we’re at in the playoffs and that New Orleans is a heck of a football team,” Zimmer said on Monday afternoon, when the Vikings reconvened for preparation.

The Vikings beat the Saints 29-19 in the season opener , when Sam Bradford was their quarterback and Dalvin Cook was the running back for an offense that took full advantage of a young defense trying to get set. The Saints also still had Adrian Peterson in their backfield then, before trading him to the Arizona Cardinals and clearing space for rookie Alvin Kamara to elevate his role next to Mark Ingram.

“From the first time we played them to now, it’s totally different,” Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said.

For both teams, really. September was so long ago.

“I would expect that they’ve kind of grown into their own identity now,” Saints linebacker Manti Te’o said. “I don’t expect to see the same team that we saw Week 1, and I know they don’t expect to see the same team they saw in Week 1, too.”

Bradford has resumed practicing, but he likely will remain on injured reserve this week with Teddy Bridgewater backing up Case Keenum at quarterback.

“We’ll just take our time,” Zimmer said of Bradford’s status, “and see how it goes.”

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