The New Orleans Saints opened their title defense by winning with defense.
Jonathan Vilma intercepted Brett Favre, and the Saints allowed the Minnesota Vikings only two first downs and no points in the second half of a hard-fought 14-9 victory in the NFL's regular season opener on Thursday night.
How unusual was that kind of result for New Orleans?
In Sean Payton's first four seasons as head coach, the Saints led the NFL in offense three times and had never won when scoring fewer than 19 points.
With Favre being held to 171 yards passing, the Vikings relied heavily on Adrian Peterson, who had 122 yards rushing and three touchdowns when these teams last met in the 2009 NFC title game. In the rematch, he managed only 87 yards on 19 carries and did not score.
“To hold a team like that with a damn good quarterback and probably the best running back in the league and a really good offensive line, we did some special things,” said Saints defensive end Alex Brown, who joined the team as a free agent after their Super Bowl win. “It's going to take a hell of a team to beat us. We're just 1-0, but we are a really good team here.”
Drew Brees completed 27 of 36 passes for 237 yards and one touchdown, a 29-yarder to Devery Henderson. That was far from Brees' best, but good enough.
“We're not used to 14-9 victories, but we're used to winning,” said Brees, the reigning Super Bowl MVP. “So we like the W.”
Pierre Thomas added a 1-yard TD early in the second half that put the Saints ahead for good.
Payton said he “was proud of the way we came through and made enough plays to start the season 1-0.”
“Defensively we did a very good job of holding against the run and still taking some of the downfield throws away,” the coach said.
This latest meeting of the Vikings and Saints was far different from the turnover-filled, back-and-forth overtime thriller that the Saints pulled out, 31-28, for the NFC title last January.
There wasn't nearly as much at stake this time, and while the game was competitive, the energy on the field and in the stadium wasn't the same — perhaps because fans were tired from a day filled with festivities that included a concert in the French Quarter, a parade and the unfurling of the 2009 Super Bowl championship banner before kickoff.
The only turnover of the game came on Favre's interception — the result of a ball thrown under duress on Roman Harper's safety blitz.
Also unlike their previous meeting, the Saints owned most of the statistical advantages, outgaining Minnesota 308 yards to 253.
New Orleans might have won more easily if not for two missed field goals by Garrett Hartley, who kicked the game-winning field goal in the last meeting and was one of the Saints' playoff heroes.
Still, New Orleans was able to kneel on the ball to run out most of the last two minutes after Thomas capped a 71-yard performance with a 10-yard, first-down run right after the 2-minute warning.
The 40-year-old Favre, who decided to return for a 20th season after an ankle operation, looked out of synch or inaccurate at times. The fact that Minnesota was without star receiver Sidney Rice may have had something to do with that, although Favre said, “I just missed on some throws I should have made.”
Favre's best sequence came on Minnesota's only touchdown drive late in the first half, when he found Vinsanthe Shiancoe on precision down-the-middle completions of 33 and 20 yards, the second for the Vikings' only TD.
That gave Minnesota a 9-7 halftime lead.
“We were right where we wanted to be at halftime, then it was three-and-out, three-and-out,” Vikings coach Brad Childress said. “There were not a lot of throws to be made downfield. They were going to hold us down and make us bleed slowly.”