New Orleans' game at Minnesota on Sunday night is a reminder of two of the lowest points in the Saints season last year.
Their season began and ended in U.S. Bank Stadium.
In the season opener, the Vikings won 29-19 as they exposed defensive shortcomings that would be a major factor in New Orleans' 0-2 start.
Then, after New Orleans rebounded to win eight straight, finish 11-5, win the NFC South and defeat Carolina in a wild-card playoff game, it traveled to Minnesota for a divisional round game. The Saints rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit to lead 24-23 before the Vikings completed a 61-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
In between the two trips to Minnesota, New Orleans had an outstanding season. But the bookend games against the Vikings revealed weaknesses that prevented the Saints from playing for the NFC Championship.
"There is always going to be that taste in your mouth from that last game because that was a wild one," Saints guard Larry Warford said. "There was so much at stake in that game and the way it ended just left a bad taste in our mouth. We are all going to have that feeling, but at the same time we aren't going to approach it any different than we do all our games.
"I think one of the great things about our team is our preparation is consistent. We don't get too caught up in narcissism or anything or any talk about the game or a certain team. We worry about ourselves at the end of the day and we get ourselves better."
New Orleans is 5-1 after winning five straight and appears capable of another playoff run. Again, a game at Minnesota (4-2-1) will provide a gauge of where this team is.
The Saints have gotten progressively better on defense after a rough start, just as they did last season after they followed the opening loss at Minnesota with a 36-20 loss to New England, then began their winning streak.
New Orleans ranks No. 1 in the NFL in rush defense, allowing just 72.3 yards per game.
"Every single week that's a point of emphasis," linebacker A.J. Klein said. "I think the D-Line has been playing outstanding, linebackers and even the back seven, the back end when we need them to get the run pitch. Everybody has been doing their job.
"It's just one of those things where you have to pay attention to detail. I think it just goes to show that we're a damn good defense when it comes to stopping the run and I think that's something we're going to continue to emphasize and continue to work on moving forward."
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer noted how different preparation was this week in getting ready to face the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees. Minnesota has taken advantage of rookie quarterbacks on the other side the past two weeks.
Brees and New Orleans coach Sean Payton offer a bigger challenge. As Zimmer noted, the Saints offense is "indiscriminate," knowing the ball can go to any of the team's playmakers.
Receiver Michael Thomas has 53 catches and four touchdowns this season. Dual-threat back Alvin Kamara has 363 yards rushing, 362 receiving yards and seven touchdowns and New Orleans has running back Mark Ingram II back from his suspension to start the season.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes will have to slow Thomas. Minnesota's safeties and linebackers will need to keep their eyes on Kamara and Ingram and not get caught with the deception Brees offers.
Offensively, Adam Thielen is likely to see top cover cornerback Marshon Lattimore, possibly even with Thielen spending his time in the slot.
The Vikings have made some strides running the ball in recent weeks and could use a good game on the ground to take the pressure off quarterback Kirk Cousins in having to keep pace with Brees. Cousins gives Minnesota a chance in back-and-forth games more than its had in the past, but the Vikings likely won't want to get into a shootout on Sunday.
For the Vikings, running back Dalvin Cook didn't practice on Wednesday as he deals with a lingering hamstring injury and a report from the NFL Network said he could be held out until after Minnesota's bye week in Week 10.
Without Cook in the lineup, Minnesota's running game has gotten on track the past two games with Latavius Murray leading the way. Murray has run for 224 yards and three touchdowns the past two weeks. He has eight rushing touchdowns in the past eight home games.
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