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Final Thoughts: Vikings vs. Saints

Electric. Charged. The atmosphere inside U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday night will rival that of any event held in the beautiful venue since it opened a year ago. As juiced up as everyone was for the first regular season home game at U.S. Bank Stadium last year, a game in which the Vikings defeated the Packers, the pomp and circumstance surrounding this year's home opener tops it, in my view. It's the season opener. It's *on Monday Night Football. *Adrian Peterson returns to Minnesota as a member of the Saints, of all teams. And Randy Moss goes into the Ring of Honor.

It will be a special night, full of emotion, expectation, anxious energy and plenty of action.

And it's also one of 16. It's one game in what will be a long, winding, war-of-attrition like 16-game schedule for the Vikings. It' easy to put a lot – too much, really – into this game. Win it, and you'll feel on top of the world. Lose it, and you'll feel like the weight of the world is on top of you. At the end of the equation, win or lose, world by the tail or world against you, there's another game just six days later, as the Pittsburgh Steelers await to host the Vikings in what will be their home opener.

By all means, go all in on Monday. Arrive early, wear your purple swag, cheer loudly, dream of being 1-0. But save one little spot in the back of your brain for perspective to reside. Perspective that no matter what happens on Monday night, the Vikings have to put in every bit as much effort and energy to prepare for the Steelers and the rest of the grind; 15 more games to fight for a spot in the second season.

Let's get to a few more final thoughts from the week that was.

Something Cooking?

All the running back attention has gone the way of Peterson, and appropriately so. He's a Vikings legend, a future Hall of Famer, and he's playing against his former team in his first game with his new team. But that has left one of the Vikings new running backs in the shadows. Dalvin Cook will make his debut for the Vikings on Monday night and he's coming off an impressive first several months in the NFL.

Even more interesting here is that Cook often times plays his best when the stage is the biggest. He averaged 157.6 yards per game against five ranked opponents in 2016, he totaled 169 rushing yards and four touchdowns against rival Clemson and he earned Orange Bowl MVP honors against Michigan. He is comfortable on the big stage.

You can't start your NFL career on a much bigger stage than Cook will on Monday.

Amazing (to me) Moss stat

Obviously, Randy Moss generated numerous impressive and even unprecedented statistical accomplishments. And I'm not saying this one is atop the list or even near it. But it stood out to me.

Four time Moss led the NFL in touchdown receptions for a season. That's not the amazing stat. What's amazing to me is he did it as a rookie in 1998 with 17, an incredible number, but then also did it 11(!) seasons later in 2009 with 13. Think of how many receivers, some of them very good and maybe even Hall of Fame caliber, came and went within that span. What an incredible career and how fortunate we were to bear witness to it and to bear witness to him being immortalized in Vikings history on Monday night.

New-look Vikings offensive line debuts

Joe Berger is back as the starter at right guard, but that's a new spot for him and that means the Vikings have five new starters along their offensive line for the 2017 season. Matt Kalil, Alex Boone, Brandon Fusco and Andre Smith joined Berger to comprise the 2016 Week 1 starting group. For Monday night, it's likely to be Riley Reiff, Nick Easton, Pat Elflein, Berger and Mike Remmers (from left to right) who comprise the starting group. More than any other group, the offensive line years for and thrives from synergy.

Given the new faces and recent reshuffling, that synergy will be a work in progress for the Vikings. As this group gels, the onus is on quarterback Sam Bradford to make sure he, Elflein and the rest of the line are on the same page.

"Probably a little bit," Bradford said when asked if more is put on his shoulders with the new line. "Like I said, I have a lot of confidence in Pat. He's done a great job understanding our protections, understanding our schemes, and how we're trying to block things. But at the end of the day he still is young and if I can help or I see something that I need to change then obviously I'll do so.

Red zone leads to end zone

It's more likely than not that the winner of Monday night's game will cite their improvement in the red zone as a big key to their victory. For the Vikings, that would be improving their red zone offense, a statistical split in which they ranked 29th last year with 46% of their drives resulting in touchdowns. For the Saints, it's red zone defense, which was an area of concern last season as they allowed touchdowns on 57% of opponents drives inside the 20, ranking 22nd in the NFL.

Three threats

Cameron Jordan – He's the most disruptive player on the Saints defense, tallying 17 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and six pass breakups a year ago in what was Pro Bowl campaign. He plays defensive end but can line up anywhere in the Saints front and he's someone to key on when devising blocking schemes versus New Orleans.   

Mark Ingram – Capable of being a dual threat at running back, Ingram is the Saints starter and may see more touches than Adrian Peterson. He averages 4.45 yards per carry for his career and had 10 touchdowns last season – six on the ground and four through the air.   

Ted Ginn, Jr. – Speed. You can't teach it and Ginn has it. He can burn you as a receiver and as a returner.

Your mail

Last year, Sam Bradford had a lot on his plate learning the team, an injury-stricken offensive line and limited wide receiver targets. Are you expecting a much better passing game this year with a year's more experience with the team, a rejuvenated offensive line and what looks like depth at wide receiver based on preseason standouts Stacy Coley and Rodney Adams? -- David

Let's give credit to Bradford for the way he played last season. He joined the team eight days before the regular season began and still managed to author a 20-5 TD-INT ratio and he set a NFL record for completion percentage. With that being said, yes, I do expect greater things from the Vikings passing game in 2017. The Vikings ranked 17th with 257.4 passing yards per game and tied for 21st with 20 passing touchdowns in 2016, and I think they will rank higher in both categories in 2017. Pass protection is the biggest factor on this issue. Pass protection is not only the responsibility of the offensive line, though. The Vikings must run the ball with more efficiency because that indirectly and profoundly impacts a team's ability to protect the passer. With the changes to the offensive line and the additions of Cook and Latavius Murray, I expect the Vikings will have a better rushing offense, too.

Who do you feel is going to have a breakout year? Both offense and defense. I truly hope Laquon Treadwell does. On defense I really hope Anthony Barr will step up this year.

-- David California

If those two players have breakout seasons, the Vikings will be in good shape. How about Pat Elflein and Jaleel Johnson? Those two rookies have a great opportunity to impact their side of the ball, and if they do so in a positive manner it will spell good things for 2017.

Favorite quote of the week: Mike Zimmer

Reporter: "How do you think Adrian is going to come in here with a chip on his shoulder?"

Zimmer: "I hope we have a chip on our shoulder. This game isn't about Adrian Peterson. It's about the Vikings and the Saints. They've got a lot of great offensive weapons and he's a great player, but this game isn't about Adrian Peterson."

Zim is right. This game does not hinge solely on the performance and production of Peterson. That is to say: Peterson can have the night of his life and the Saints can still lose, and the Vikings can completely shut Peterson down and still not contain the Saints offense. There are just too many other good players on both teams to think this game comes down to exclusively Peterson versus the Vikings.

I can't wait to watch Xavier Rhodes matchup with Michael Thomas. And I think the Saints safeties and linebackers will have their hands full with Kyle Rudolph. And you know Zimmer and Saints head coach Sean Payton, both upper-echelon schemers on their respective sides of the ball, both have some tricks up their sleeve.

Broadcast Info

National TV: ESPN (Game 1 of Monday Night Football doubleheader)

Play-by-play: Sean McDonough

Analyst: Jon Gruden

Sideline: Lisa Salters

National Radio: Westwood One Sports

Play-by-play: Ian Eagle

Analyst: Dan Fouts

Sideline: Ross Tucker

Local Radio: KFAN-FM 100.3/KTLK-AM 1130

Play-by-play: Paul Allen

Analyst: Pete Bercich

Sideline: Greg Coleman, Ben Leber

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