Itching for victory, the Saints played a physical, explosive game to sink the Vikings and claim a victory in their home opener. Most impressive was the defense, who stifled an explosive offense led by Daunte Culpepper and featuring Cris Carter and Randy Moss. Although Culpepper finished with 332 yards passing against the Saints' secondary, the team's cornerbacks proved that they can be physical enough to handle a size differential of more than half a foot, and make plays themselves.
Starters Fred Thomas and Kevin Mathis, each 5'9", would regularly been seen making open field tackles on Moss, 6'4", and Carter, 6'3". When Carter caught a bomb behind the secondary, Mathis chased the future Hall-of-Famer down and knocked the ball free at the three yard line. The ball rolled into the back of the end zone where Sammy Knight fell on it for a touchback. Mathis' gutsy play, even after being beaten on a long pass, turned a touchdown into a turnover. The secondary had an interception by Jay Bellamy and held Randy Moss to four catches for 48 yards, although it gave up an early touchdown. Tight end Byron Chamberlain had two catches for 48 yards and the Vikings' second touchdown. Daunte Culpepper finished 23-34 for 332 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Thomas and Mathis led the team with seven and six solo tackles respectively.
The defensive line also came up with a huge day. Between ends Joe Johnson and Darren Howard and 2000 NFL sack king La'Roi Glover, the Saints had five sacks, a forced fumble, and 10 tackles. Middle linebacker Charlie Clemons added four more tackles and a sack. Clemons is showing some great skill as a pass rusher but showed that he needs some work in pass coverage. Clemons is coming off a season on injured reserve and is playing well. The key was stopping the Viking running game. The Vikings were 1-8 on third downs, and held first round draft pick rookie RB Michael Bennett to 24 yards on eight carries.
The biggest play for the defense was when Daunte Culpepper rolled to his left. He evaded Darren Howard at first, pumped the ball, but them Howard knocked the ball out of his hands. Two players hopped on it and missed before backup safety picked it up and raced 38 yards down the field for a touchdown.
The Saints offense finally was able to get off to a good start. It took the first two possessions into Vikings territory and scored 15 in the first half. The problem this time was red zone efficiency. On four trips into the red zone, the Saints came away with three field goals and a touchdown. Threatening again at the end of the first half, Brooks threw his second interception of the season at the Saint 12. The Saints also settled for two long field goals by Carney of 45 and 50 yards on two more scoring drives. Carney would tie the Saints record set my Morten Andersen many times with five field goals. "We could have had 50 points," Haslett said after the game. Indeed, if the Saints had scored touchdowns instead of five field goals and an interception, the Saints would have had 55.
It was Ricky Williams that would be the focus of the Saints offense. Williams rumbled for a season-high 136 yards on 30 carries, a 4.53 yards/carry average, a touchdown, and also caught five passes of 42 yards. Ricky really started rolling in the fourth quarter, when he ripped off carries of 17, 8, 14, and 11 yards at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Williams had 42 yards rushing in the first half as compared to 94 in the second.
Willie Jackson continues to be the most prolific Saints receiver, with six catches for 95 yards, although it seems that opponent defenses would rather have Jackson succeed than allow big-play threats like Joe Horn and Albert Connell break free. Still, Horn caught one pass on the day, a 41-yarder in the middle of three defenders, and would also draw a 42-yard pass interference penalty on rookie corner Eric Kelly. Albert Connell was limited to one nine yard grab early in the game. Robert Wilson had 2 catches for 23 yards including a critical 18-yard catch on 3rd and 13 with three minutes left that shut the door on the Vikings. The Saints look to have four reliable receivers right now, and a fifth is kick returner Michael Lewis. Lewis made a great play on special teams at the end of the game, tipping a punt out of the end zone where it was downed inside the 3. Lewis continues to be one of the NFL's most dangerous return men, with a kick return of 34 yards and a punt return of 32 yards as highlights. Toby Gowin improved on last week's punting performance and had three punts for a 41.3 yard average, two of which were downed inside the 20.
The Saints continued to make some avoidable penalties, including personal fouls on Tom Ackerman and later Ricky Williams, and managed eight flags for 65 yards. While an improvement on last week's 14 penalties for 102 yards, Jim Haslett said after the game that the team still needs to work on eliminating some of the unnecessary penalties. Unlike last week, though, the Saints were 2-0 on instant replay reviews. Last week the Saints had three replay reviews go against them. Today, the Vikings challenged Cris Carter's fumble into the end zone that resulted in a touchback. The call on the field stood. The very next play, Robert Wilson fumbled after an apparent catch that was recovered by the Vikings at the Saint 35. A challenge by the Saints revealed that Wilson never had possession, and the Saints retained control of the ball.
The victory improves the Saints' record to 2-1, 1-1 in the NFC.