By Don Banks
September 09, 2010

The interminable seven-month wait over, the NFL returns to the national stage tonight when the Vikings and Saints kick it off in New Orleans. The only shame of it all, of course, is the lack of any real drama due to the outcome having been foreordained.

What? You pretend to not know who will win tonight's highly anticipated and over-celebrated rematch of last January's near-epic NFC Championship Game in the Superdome? Someone's either in denial or just hasn't been paying attention, because the league does its level best to annually make this NFL Opening Kickoff Game the equivalent of a Washington Generals-Harlem Globetrotters showdown -- right down to the pregame razzle-dazzle and the manufacturing of faux suspense.

But facts are facts. This will be the seventh season in a row the NFL has opened with its defending Super Bowl champion at home on a Thursday night, taking one last victory lap before its adoring crowd and a national TV audience. And while there's always a worthy adversary on the other sideline, the banner-hanging defending champs are 6-0 in this set-up, with a healthy 11.2 point average margin of victory.

In order, the 2004 Patriots, 2005 Patriots, 2006 Steelers, 2007 Colts, 2008 Giants, and 2009 Steelers have all had their season-opening parties come off exactly as planned, with the added bonus of then getting 10 days or so before they have to take their shiny new 1-0 record into Week 2. As in life at times, the NFL rich tend to get richer.

"I think it could definitely be to our advantage," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees of the huge natural high he expects will result from getting a final opportunity to celebrate the franchise's first Super Bowl championship, won just two weeks after the last time these two teams faced off in the Superdome -- that 31-28 overtime thriller of a New Orleans victory. "Just the sheer emotion of watching that [championship] banner drop and knowing we were a part of it and that it will hang forever, and we will all be linked together forever because of it.''

After Thursday night the Saints will have seen this particular story from both sides. They've been both the Christians and the lions. Three years ago in Indianapolis, the 2007 Saints -- who, like these Vikings, were also coming off a loss in the NFC title game -- were the designated patsy for the Colts' banner-displaying festivities at the RCA Dome. It was a close game for a while (10-10 at the half), but then (wink, wink) the Colts pulled away and eased to a 41-10 victory, and a good time was had by all. At least all those in blue and white.

"We were part of this game in 2007, up in Indianapolis after they had won it,'' Brees recalled. "Unfortunately, that wasn't a great moment, because we were on the other side. Hopefully [we play] like the home team did that night, but I guess I haven't thought a whole lot about it.

"You're so much in preparation mode for this team and who you're going up against, as opposed to thinking about the emotions of when the banner drops, the crowd and everything else. But certainly that's something to start thinking about, so I'm somewhat prepared for it, so that I stay calm once we move on from that.''

FANTASY FOOTBALL: Player projections for Vikings-Saints game

The Vikings and Saints played such a close, taut game last January that they needed overtime to settle matters. But history tells us the emotion of tonight's game will be decidedly in the Saints' favor, with all of New Orleans basking once more in the celebratory, party atmosphere that gripped the city for weeks after the Saints upset the Colts in February's Super Bowl.

Ironically, the last time I can remember an NFL game where the outcome felt as utterly predetermined as this one was that emotionally-charged Superdome re-opener in September 2006, when New Orleans welcomed the Saints back to their hurricane-ravaged city in a Monday night game against Atlanta. The poor Falcons were mere props for a national love-fest for the Saints that night, and I recall Atlanta head coach Jim Mora looking like someone forgot to let him in on the secret that the football gods had already written the script for what would ultimately unfold.

"I don't know that [anything] will ever compare to that Monday night game in '06,'' Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "But certainly when you play this game and it happens to be that the league set it up now with the Super Bowl winner playing on a Thursday night, there's that added element of all the things that go on.

"Certainly there's an excitement level always the first game of the regular season. The challenge this week being a Thursday night game and the festivities surrounding it, those are things we have to work through, prepare for and be able to handle.''

There have been scattered voices within the NFL who grumble that the annual practice of giving the defending Super Bowl champion such an exalted Week 1 stage with all its perceived advantages, and then 10 days between its first and second game, amounts to too much of a competitive boost for the guys who just won a ring last season. But the Vikings haven't complained about their fate and their role in the opener this week, and come to think of it, the NFL hasn't had a repeat champion since the 2003-04 Patriots, so the advantage of hosting the Thursday night kickoff game can't be all that significant.

"I guess if I was the scheduling guru, I probably would have done the same thing,'' said Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, the 20-year veteran who is taking part for the first time in this season-opening tradition. "You got to play sometime. I don't think it really matters one way or the other. In all honesty, this game is totally different from [the NFC championship] for obvious reasons. Both teams will continue to play the following week. There are still 15 games remaining.

"That is a huge difference [from] whomever wins continues on and the loser is done. Don't get me wrong -- I want to win this game as much as I wanted to win last year's game. But it is a different mindset. It's great for TV and all those things. But if you win or lose, you still have 15 games to play.''

Adding just a tad more to the Saints' domefield advantage tonight will be Brees's plan to grab a microphone and lead the always-frenzied Superdome crowd in the "Who Dat!'' chant just after the pregame coin toss. I suppose the Vikings are expected to stand in respectful silence for that last bit of pregame hype, but I would keep a TV camera trained on Jared Allen just in case.

"Emotion's huge in a game like [this],'' Saints fullback Heath Evans said. "You might see a team come in unemotional in a game like [this], and if they do, they'll get their heads handed to them. But I think this game is a little bit different. [The Vikings] can't help but feel they lost that [NFC title] game because of turnovers. You can't help but think they feel they outplayed us. But all that matters is who's standing at the end.''

All that matters tonight is who's standing center stage, taking one last bow. That would be the defending Super Bowl champion Saints. Not the visiting Vikings. That's the way this NFL Opening Kickoff Game stuff works. You can look it up.

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