NFC South: Vikings-Saints

 
 Chris Graythen/Getty Images
 Reggie Bush's record-tying two punt returns for touchdowns could not prevent New Orleans from losing, 30-27, to the Vikings on Monday night.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Five observations from Monday night's game.

1. Even if you've been a Saints fan for years, what happened against the Vikings has to rank near the top of the list of worst moments in franchise history. The Saints have lost a lot of games through the years because they were flat-out bad.

That's no longer the case because the Saints had enough talent to move the ball 729 yards (counting return yardage). They also wasted what could have been one of the most spectacular performances in the history of "Monday Night Football".

Reggie Bush, who never has been able to establish himself as a feature back, nearly established himself as a feature player. He single-handedly put the Saints in position to win. Then, they somehow lost, 30-27.

"We lost this game collectively from top to bottom,'' Bush said.

No, they did not. Bush did more than enough for the Saints to win.

Bush returned two second-half punts for touchdowns and gave the Saints a 27-20 fourth-quarter lead. When you've got that against a team quarterbacked by Gus Frerotte, you should be 3-2 and on your way to certain victory in Sunday's home game against Oakland.

"All for nothing because you didn't win the game, all over stupid stuff,'' quarterback Drew Brees said.

Bush had five punt returns for a franchise-record 176 yards and the Saints had a team-record 354 yards on punt and kickoff returns. But Bush's performance, which had the fans in the Superdome chanting "Reggie,'' is going to be forgotten.

It could have been a turning point in a career and in the Saints' season. It wasn't. Failure just about everywhere else means Bush's performance didn't really matter. What should have been one of the most glorious victories in franchise history will be one of the worst losses.

2. Even though he's young, Sean Payton is known as an old-school coach. I'm starting to wonder if that reputation is deserved. Payton is supposed to be a coach who puts a disciplined team on the field.

However, the Saints were anything but disciplined against the Vikings. They were flagged 11 times for 102 yards. Yes, there were a couple of controversial calls and non-calls, but you should be able to overcome that when you're setting records for return yardage, passing for 320 yards and holding Adrian Peterson in check.

"It starts with me,'' Payton said. "I've got to do a better job.''

Yes, he does. A few weeks back, the Saints gave Payton a new, five-year contract. It looked like a good move at the time. Now you've got to question if the move was premature.

Injuries -- and the Saints have had their share -- can't be an excuse for this one. The Saints had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown, lost two fumbles and had two passes intercepted.

"I felt like we were a better team,'' Brees said. "Without those turnovers, I think we win this game pretty easily.''

3. Give Frerotte a ton of credit. He's old, he took some shots and he got only 32 rushing yards out of Peterson. But, on his last two drives, Frerotte produced 10 points. His 33-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian was a perfect throw. He got some help from a pass-interference penalty on Kevin Kaesviharn to set up the winning field goal.

He kept Minnesota's season from getting out of hand and it's looking more and more like coach Brad Childress made the right call in declaring Frerotte his starter for the rest of the season. The Vikings have too much going for them -- Peterson and a very good defense -- not to be in contention this year.

4. Saints kicker Martin Gramatica, who missed a field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter, spoke with the media after the game. He didn't do that after missing a key kick against Denver.

"I hit it solid, but it went left,'' Gramatica said. "The worst thing about it is that I let the team down.''

Yes, he did. But the Saints have no one to blame but themselves for their kicking problems. The entire league knows Gramatica has a history of being erratic at times. The Saints went out and drafted kicker Taylor Mehlhaff. Then, they decided to go with Gramatica. It's starting to look a lot like they made the wrong choice.

5. I wouldn't read too much into the fact that running back Deuce McAllister got only six carries, a week after getting 20. McAllister did get the call, and produced, in some short-yardage situations.

The Saints came in knowing they probably weren't going to run a lot against a Minnesota defensive front that doesn't give up very much.

Rapid Reaction: Vikings 30, Saints 27

October, 7, 2008
10/07/08
12:14
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints wasted one of the greatest performances in "Monday Night Football" history.

New Orleans managed to lose 30-27 on a night when Reggie Bush returned two punts for touchdowns to give the Saints a fourth-quarter lead. A late pass-interference call on safety Kevin Kaesviharn set up a 30-yard field goal by Minnesota's Ryan Longwelll with 13 seconds left.

The Kaesviharn penalty and a touchdown pass from Gus Frerotte to Bernard Berrian came after Bush had put the Saints up 27-20. Blame a defense that fell apart late, an offense that couldn't hold onto the ball early, a couple of controversial calls by the officials and kicker Martin Gramatica, who had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown and missed another attempt late in the game.

That all helped the Saints squander a franchise-record 354 yards in punt and kickoff return yardage. This was New Orleans' chance to right its season. Instead, the Saints are 2-3 heading into Sunday's home game -- their last in the Superdome for more than a month -- with Oakland. After what happened against the Vikings, the Saints can't even take a game with the Raiders for granted.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints' defense has taken a lot of heat this season and most of it's justified. But if the Saints end up losing this one, you can't pin it on the defense.

The defense did its job through most of the first half, holding Adrian Peterson to 17 yards on 10 carries. With Minnesota's one-dimensional offense (remember, Gus Frerotte is the quarterback), that should be good enough. However, the Vikings took a 20-10 lead into halftime.

However, the Saints are giving this game away on offense and special teams. You could even question a call or two by the officials. New Orleans has turned the ball over three times. The Saints had a blocked field goal attempt returned for a touchdown by Antoine Winfield.

The Saints, so far, have wasted a pretty strong first half by quarterback Drew Brees, who has completed 19 of 29 passes for 220 yards. Brees did have a second-quarter interception but that came after the ball went through receiver Lance Moore's hands.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- There's a very interesting scene on the New Orleans sideline.

Tight end Jeremy Shockey, who stayed away from the Giants during last season's Super Bowl, isn't steering clear of the Saints while he's recovering from hernia surgery. In fact, Shockey's keeping a very visible presence.

Shockey, in street clothes, has been bouncing around all game. He's been standing near coach Sean Payton most of the game and often has been the first to shake the hands of teammates as they come off the field.

Saints cut Harrington, again

October, 6, 2008
10/06/08
9:57
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- My bad on the Joey Harrington item earlier. He's not active. In fact, he's not even on the roster.

The Saints cut the quarterback earlier today to create a roster spot for tight end Buck Ortega. That's the second time New Orleans has cut Harrington.

Winfield makes Minnesota history

October, 6, 2008
10/06/08
9:16
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Minnesota's Antoine Winfield just scored more than a touchdown. He made history.

He picked up a field goal attempt that was blocked by Kevin Williams and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown with 6:20 left in the first quarter. Believe it or not, that's the first time in Minnesota history the Vikings have returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in a regular-season game. The Vikings did return a blocked field goal for a touchdown (by Bobby Bryant) in a 1976 playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- The knock on Saints receiver Devery Henderson always has been his hands. That may be changing.

So far tonight, Henderson has caught a 17-yard touchdown and a 52-yard pass. More importantly, he's yet to be charged with a dropped pass this season. That's a big change from past years. According to STATS, Henderson dropped 10 passes last year and eight in 2006.

Tonight's inactives

October, 6, 2008
10/06/08
7:42
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Here are the inactive players for tonight's game.

VIKINGS: John David Booty (third quarterback), Sidney Rice, Madieu Williams, Benny Sapp, Thomas Tapeh, Drew Radovich, Marcus Johnson and Letroy Guion.

SAINTS: Marques Colston, Aaron Glenn, Olaniyi Sobomehin, Chris Reis, Jermon Bushrod, David Patten, Jeremy Shockey and Sedrick Ellis.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Assigning blame and credit in pass coverage is a tricky business in the NFL. The closest defender isn't always responsible, and sometimes a smart adjustment by one player makes another look good.

 
 David Stluka/Getty Images
 Cedric Griffin expects to be tested by Drew Brees and the Saints Monday night.

In that context, we can't specify how many completions Minnesota cornerback Cedric Griffin has given up this season. What we can tell you is that opponents are targeting him frequently -- enough to make him the Vikings' fourth-leading tackler, an ominous statistic for an NFL cornerback. Griffin doesn't have an interception this season, has batted away only one pass and faces a stiff challenge Monday night against New Orleans' top-rated passing offense.

Speaking last week in the Vikings' locker room, Griffin acknowledged he is being picked on this season but attributed it to a pair of extenuating factors:

  • The presence of veteran Antoine Winfield on the other side of the Vikings' defense. Teams naturally prefer to throw away from Winfield, Griffin said.
  • His status as the right cornerback. According to Griffin: "Most teams are right-handed, and the ride side is usually the single-receiver side ... where they run their outs and curls. I love playing right corner because I get a lot of action."

Griffin, of course, has seen a lot of action in part because he hasn't stopped receivers from catching medium-range passes in front of him. Vikings coaches note Griffin has given up only one long pass play, a 58-yard completion to Indianapolis receiver Anthony Gonzalez, and they don't appear unhappy with his performance.

Here's how defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier assessed Griffin's play thus far:

"Some people have caught some passes underneath, some outs and some curls, and with the exception with that one play with [Anthony] Gonzalez, he's done a good job of not allowing big plays over the top of him. That's what we ask him to do in our scheme. As long as he does that and tackles well ... then he'll be fine. There are things that people try to do because Antoine [Winfield] is such a good player on the left side. He's holding his own. You just have to do a good job of tackling and not giving up big plays over the top and we'll be fine."

From our vantage point, a collection of 7-yard receptions can hurt a defense just as much as one long pass. Griffin is a physical player, but it only takes one missed tackle to turn a short pass into a big play. It seems fair to expect opponents to continue targeting him unless he tightens up his coverage enough to make an interception or at least break up passes more consistently.

Griffin doesn't disagree, but said the worst thing he can do is start pressing for an interception.

"You can't be too aggressive out there," Griffin said. "You have to patient, you have to relax and you have to have a lot of confidence. When my time comes ... to get some picks, it's going to come."

Monday night would be a good time for the Vikings.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Tom Brady has been disqualified by injury and Peyton Manning -- for the moment -- by circumstance.

That leaves open the question that was closed for so long: Who's the best quarterback in the NFL?

 
 Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
 New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is establishing himself among the NFL's elite signal-callers.

Maybe it's already been answered. Everywhere you look in the league's passing statistics, Drew Brees is at, or very near, the top. You could leave Denver's Jay Cutler in the argument until you throw in degree of difficulty.

Cutler's doing it with Brandon Marshall, who just might be the league's best receiver, and Eddie Royal, who just might be the best rookie receiver. He has a coach (Mike Shanahan) who's been called a genius and a bunch of other weapons.

Brees is doing it with smoke, mirrors and healthy dose of screen and swing passes to Reggie Bush. And Brees is making it look easy.

"It's never easy. Never, ever easy,'' Brees said. "Your preparation throughout the week can make it easier. The more comfortable you are, the calmer you will be because you understand where the ball is going to go, no matter what the coverage or the situation. That's what allows you to be successful out there, the preparation. You're always trying to envision every scenario. That way, when game day comes around, it's as if it's always happened.''

As big as he is on preparation, there's no way Brees could have envisioned how things have played out in the first four games. Already one of the league's better quarterbacks, it's not especially surprising that Brees has become the best with Brady out for the season with an injury and Manning playing very ordinary football.

What is truly shocking is that Brees has been able to do it with a supporting cast of guys who were supposedly practice-squad players and busts. The star-studded cast he opened the season with has disappeared.

Top receiver Marques Colston went out with a thumb injury in the opener and probably won't be back for at least a few more weeks. Tight end Jeremy Shockey, the top pickup of the offseason, went down with a sports hernia and could miss a few more games. Throw in a few other injuries on offense, the four-game suspension of starting guard Jamar Nesbit and New Orleans' reluctance to use veteran running back Deuce McAllister in the first three games and it's a minor miracle the Saints have been able to move the ball at all.

But they're moving it quite nicely because of Brees. He's the reason the Saints -- who have had even more injuries to the defense -- have been able to keep their heads above water. The Saints are 2-2 heading into Monday night's game with Minnesota and Brees has been putting up huge numbers throwing to the likes of Lance Moore and Robert Meachem.

"It just shows if you do the right things, eventually good things will happen to you,'' Brees said. "Lance was on the practice squad at one point in his career where he was just running scout team for the defense. Robert Meachem ran scout team every day last year for the defense. Those guys have paid their dues and now they're reaping the benefits.''

That's mainly because of Brees' cerebral play and accurate arm. He leads the league in completions (107), completion percentage (72.3), yards (1,343) and yards per game (335.8).

There have been constant changes in personnel and not much consistency in the running game until the Saints unleashed McAllister last week. That's allowed opposing defenses to focus all their efforts on stopping Brees and they've thrown a steady diet of blitzes and different coverages at him.

But take a stroll back through the tapes of the first four games and it's hard to find a play where Brees looked flustered.

"It happens from time to time,'' Brees said. "You always have to expect the unexpected. At times, you'll see something where you are not quite sure what that was when you look at the picture when you come to the sideline trying to figure it out. That way I can try to see it coming the next time. Defenses are always evolving, trying to stay one step ahead of you, just like you're trying to stay one step ahead of them. It's a chess match.''

It's a chess match Brees is winning without all the pieces of his offense. It's not going to be that way forever. The Saints are hoping Colston and Shockey can return around midseason and the re-emergence of McAllister has given the ground game hope.

If Brees can do this well without a full supporting cast, imagine what he can do when he has it. When all is said and done, he could be in the lofty perch usually reserved for Manning and Brady.

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