When the New Orleans Saints opened the 2017 NFL season against the Minnesota Vikings, the pregame story was the return of running back Adrian Peterson to Minneapolis.
After 10 seasons with the Vikings, Peterson had left for New Orleans in free agency. The Saints signed the seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time NFL rushing champ on April 25, even though they had Mark Ingram coming off a 1,000-yard season and would add Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara in the second round of the NFL Draft on April 28.
Peterson didn’t have a triumphant return. The Vikings beat the Saints 29-19 on Sept. 11 as he ran for 18 yards on six carries.
The Saints and Vikings will square off again on Sunday in the NFL playoffs, kicking off at 3:40 p.m. CST at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. FOX will televise the game.
“I feel like we really didn’t have an identity as a team maybe in Week 1,” Ingram said. “We’ve found out who we are. We’re going to go in there with confidence, swagger and play the ball we know how to play. They have a great defense, great team, but we feel like we can beat anybody.”
Peterson won’t be with New Orleans on this visit. He was traded to the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 10, an event that seemed to allow the Saints to blossom into a playoff team.
At the time Peterson was traded, New Orleans had a 2-2 record. Peterson had run for 81 yards on 27 carries and caught two passes for 4 yards, Ingram had 42 carries for 170 yards and 15 catches for 125 yards and Kamara had 15 carries for 83 yards and one touchdown and 20 receptions for 147 yards and one touchdown.
With its running-back rotation reduced to two players, New Orleans won nine of its remaining 12 regular-season games, then beat the Carolina Panthers 31-26 in the playoffs last week.
In the 12 regular-season games without Peterson, Ingram ran for 954 yards and 12 touchdowns on 188 carries and caught 43 passes for 291 yards and Kamara ran for 645 yards and seven touchdowns on 105 carries and caught 61 passes for 679 yards and four touchdowns.
Minnesota posted a 13-3 regular-season record to earn a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs. During the regular season, the Vikings’ defense gave up the fewest yards and points in the NFL. Minnesota ranked second in rushing defense and passing defense.
“Their defense is real good,” Ingram said. “We just did some things in that (season-opening) game that kind of didn’t help us win. They have a great defense. We all know that. We’re just focusing on our game plan and getting ready to go out there and execute.”
Ingram and Kamara became the first pair of running-back teammates to gain 1,500 yards from scrimmage apiece in one season. Both were picked for the Pro Bowl.
But their production has slowed after an eight-game spike.
In New Orleans’ past five games, the Saints have topped 92 rushing yards once. In last week’s playoff victory, Kamara touched the ball 11 times and produced 33 yards and Ingram touched the ball 10 times and produced 35 yards.
Carolina committed to stopping the Saints’ ground game, and New Orleans had only 41 rushing yards. But quarterback Drew Brees passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns.
“You want to get those touches for all of those players, and yet when certain moves are taken away, you have to be ready to make plays elsewhere,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said.
The Zoom and Boom tandem features players with Alabama football ties. Ingram won the 2009 Heisman Trophy with the Crimson Tide on a BCS national-championship team. Kamara spent a redshirt season at Alabama before transferring.
Ingram is hoping for a second big victory of the past seven days on Sunday after Alabama defeated Georgia 26-23 in overtime in the CFP championship game on Monday night.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Ingram said. “But we were able to pull it out, so Roll Tide.”
Freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa entered the game in the second half and threw three touchdown passes.
“He’s the man,” Ingram said. “I believe in Tua. He did his thing. (Trailing) 13-0, biggest game of his life — to come in and just be composed and be able to make plays, make some mistakes and still not let that bother him, be able to pull us back to victory says a lot about his composure and the talent he has as a quarterback.”
Ingram also hopes he’ll be dancing the Sean Payton after Sunday’s game. A video of the Saints coach dancing in the locker room after the victory sparked a social-media dance challenge and a rap song.
“We’re trying to go up there and get a win against a great team in a crazy environment and hit the Sean Payton again,” Ingram said.