By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; 1:13 AM
NEW ORLEANS - The New Orleans Saints didn't pile up too many style points, but they did get their bid for a proper encore to last season's stirring Super Bowl title off to a victorious start.
Their defense held Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in check, and the Saints did just enough on offense to escape with a 14-9 win in the NFL's season-opening game Thursday night at the Superdome.
"Regardless of how you win, we're at a spot now where I think our players expect to win," Saints Coach Sean Payton said.
But that was about it on offense for the Saints. Brees completed 27 of 36 passes for 237 yards and didn't throw an interception. He completed passes to nine receivers. But the Saints sputtered on offense for long stretches and, after their early touchdown, were more workmanlike than explosive. Tailback Reggie Bush had a quiet night and place kicker Garrett Hartley, who beat the Vikings with an overtime field goal in last season's NFC championship game, missed a pair of field goal attempts.
"A win is a win," Brees said. "I felt like we won this game in a different way than we've won in the past. We showed a lot about our team, even if it wasn't always pretty."
Hartley's kicking misadventures kept the Vikings within striking distance, but Favre and the Minnesota offense couldn't produce enough to get a win. Favre threw a touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the final minute of the first half to give the Vikings a 9-7 lead at the intermission. But they were shut out in the second half.
"You can attribute it to whatever," Favre said. "People will call it rusty. It falls back on me. Those guys run the routes. I have to make the throws. I didn't make enough of them. I know we're better. Plays were there to be made."
Saints defensive end Will Smith said that Favre "looked a little uncomfortable in the pocket" Thursday.
"Last year we heard a lot about how they lost the [NFC title] game," Smith said. "We had to come out and make a statement about how we won the game last year, and we won the game tonight."
Favre connected on 15 of 27 passes for 171 yards, with one touchdown pass and one interception. Tailback Adrian Peterson rushed for 87 yards on 19 carries. Place kicker Ryan Longwell provided a first-half field goal but had an extra point blocked.
Favre and the Vikings returned to the building where they lost the conference championship game after Favre threw a costly interception late in regulation. That game was a severe test of Favre's remarkable durability, as he was roughed up by repeated rugged hits by Saints defenders and emerged with an ankle injury aggravated to the point that he underwent offseason surgery.
That ankle procedure played a role in Favre's annual flirtation with retirement, which finally ended this time around after teammates Jared Allen, Steve Hutchinson and Longwell traveled to the quarterback's home in Mississippi to press Favre for an answer about whether he would play a 20th NFL season. His return further intensified the sense of anticipation for this season opener.
The Saints followed last season's triumph over the Vikings with a win over the Indianapolis Colts in their first Super Bowl appearance, and the city spent Thursday celebrating both that accomplishment and the arrival of the new season. There was a parade and a concert downtown before the game, and the franchise's championship banner was put on display at the Superdome as the Saints took the field shortly before kickoff. The fans roared, and their trademark "Who Dat" chant filled the dome.
Brees and the Saints picked up right where they left off last season. Brees fired a dart of a pass to wide receiver Marques Colston for a 28-yard gain on the game's first play from scrimmage. The Saints rolled down the field and on the drive's fifth play, Brees moved around in the pocket and threw an on-target pass to Henderson on the right sideline for a 29-yard touchdown.
But the Minnesota defense, even while being shorthanded in the secondary, settled down from there, and the Saints punted on each of their next three possessions. Brees overthrew a deep pass to an open Henderson on the Saints' second drive of the game. But the Vikings were faring no better on offense.
"I thought defensively we did a very good job of holding up against the run and still taking some of those down-the-field throws away. . . . We're excited about it," Payton said. "We'll take it."
This was the Minnesota offense as it originally was envisioned last season, with Favre being a complementary player while Peterson did the heavy lifting. It didn't work out that way last season, as Favre had what he called his finest season. But now he's missing standout wide receiver Sidney Rice, who is expected to miss at least half the season after undergoing hip surgery, and the Vikings handed the ball to Peterson early and often Thursday.
"We rushed the ball well but we were always playing catch-up," Favre said. "The pressure was always on us to make those plays. I didn't make them."
The Vikings punted on each of their first two possessions but got a 41-yard field goal by Longwell to get to within 7-3 in the second quarter. Favre was pressured into a bad throw late in the first half and linebacker Jonathan Vilma's interception gave the Saints a scoring chance, but Hartley pulled a 46-yard field goal try wide left. Favre struck suddenly with a 33-yard completion to Shiancoe, followed by a 20-yard pass to Shiancoe for a touchdown 34 seconds before halftime. Longwell's extra point was blocked, but the Vikings had the lead at the half.
The Saints moved back in front in the third quarter. They got a defensive stop to open the second half, forcing a punt, and then crafted an efficient drive that produced Thomas's one-yard touchdown run. The Saints nearly added to their lead in the fourth quarter, but wide receiver Robert Meachem couldn't make a juggling catch in the end zone - the ball fell to the turf for an incompletion - and Hartley yanked a 32-yard field goal attempt wide left.