OPINION: NFL's marquee matchup is in New Orleans

By Jim Mashek/The Sun Herald (MCT)

BILOXI – Forget the New York Jets’ rise from the ashes and subsequent berth in the AFC championship game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

The NFL’s marquee matchup is in New Orleans. Outside the Hoosier State, and the tri-state area that surrounds New York City, this is the conference title game that will drive the train. It’s the one with the Hall of Fame quarterback coming back to his old stomping grounds. It’s the one that features America’s ultimate underdog, the New Orleans Saints.

It’s got serious panache.

Sure, the Saints are a 4-point favorite in Sunday’s NFC championship game to be played in the Louisiana Superdome, in large part because the blitzkrieg it turned loose on the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional round on Saturday. The Cardinals didn’t know what hit them, and they got mauled to the tune of 45-14.

The Minnesota Vikings have a lot more grit.

The Vikings have an unbelievable pass rush, and we all know what Adrian Peterson can do with the ball in his hands. It wasn’t until August, however, and in a lot of circles, six or eight weeks later, when the Vikes were actually deemed a contender. They’d had some quarterback issues for a while, and unless you’ve got the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl Shufflers’ defense, or Ray Lewis and his merry band of Baltimore Ravens marauders from eight or nine years ago, you’re not going to get far without a good one.

Brett Favre knew this.

Brad Childress knew this.

Five months later, everybody else has to accept this.

Favre’s had his share of critics over the years, and I’ve had to step into that batting order a time or two, usually in the spring, when the headlines are sending mixed messages and we’re not really sure what to think. That’s basically what Favre does. He likes to keep people guessing.

Particularly opposing secondaries.

That’s the beauty of Sunday’s grudge match on Poydras Street. Favre isn’t going to be slinging the ball against total strangers. Darren Sharper, the Saints’ Pro Bowl safety, was Favre’s teammate for several seasons with the Green Bay Packers. And on the opposite sideline, when the Vikings have the ball, Drew Brees will be consulting with Saints coaches and backup quarterback Mark Brunell, plotting his team’s counteroffensive.

We saw an impressive one Sunday against Kurt Warner and the Cardinals.

The Vikings were equally dominant in rolling the sniffling Dallas Cowboys, who somehow are still under the delusion that they’re “America’s Team.” Look, America’s Team doesn’t whine when the opponent throws an 11-yard touchdown pass right after the two-minute warning. Jimmy Johnson, the former Cowboys coach, said it best during Fox Sports’ postgame show:

You want to keep ‘em out of the end zone, play some defense.

Besides, it prompted this gem from the guy Favre calls “Chilli,” the usually understated Brad Childress:

“The Tasmanian devils were coming from Dallas that we were about to bombard the state of Minnesota and run through us like Sherman did through the South.”

That’s what I’m talkin’ about. A little Civil War smack. That’ll get ‘em talking, at Cafe Du Monde on Jackson Square and in places like Bay St. Louis, Houma and Pascagoula.

And therein lies the rub, at least for the Vikings.

They traveled to New Orleans for a “Monday Night Football” game last year and slipped past the Saints 30-27, despite Reggie Bush returning two punts for touchdowns. He finished the game with 269 all-purpose yards. But the Saints’ defense couldn’t seal the deal.

That was before Darren Sharper and Jabari Greer came on board, to bolster the Saints’ secondary. Cornerback Tracy Porter, who joined forces with Greer to give the Saints a solid tandem against the Cardinals’ outstanding receivers, was lost for the season with a knee injury in that game. And perhaps most important, Gregg Williams was still calling the shots in Jacksonville.

Sean Payton brought Williams to New Orleans on Jan. 15, 2009.

One year and four days later, the Saints are on the doorstep of the Super Bowl.

It is not a coincidence.