Vikings, Saints Open NFL Season In New Orleans

The NFL regular season gets underway Thursday night with the champion New Orleans Saints taking on Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota outperformed the Saints in many categories in last season's NFC championship game.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The NFL season begins tonight, with a rematch of one of last years most exciting games, the NFC championship. It's the Minnesota Vikings taking on the Saints at the Superdome in New Orleans. And joining us for a preview of that game and the rest of the season is NPR Sports Correspondent Mike Pesca.

Welcome.

MIKE PESCA: Hi.

WERTHEIMER: So, Mike, the Saints beat the Vikings last year. Brett Favre is back with Minnesota, will that make a difference?�

PESCA: Well, of course, Brett Favre's really important. But I'm wondering if his career, or this season at least, is going to be looked at in retrospect like Gary Cooper reluctantly coming out and doing some more gun slinging in "High Noon," or will it look like the Fred Thompson presidential run where there was so much clamor to get him into the arena and once he was there everyone said, hmm.

Because Brett Favre's a great player and a tough player, but the players around him haven't really gotten better. He's missing his primary receiver. And if you remember, in the last game Brett Favre did not get sacked, but he got hit and he got knocked down so many times. And it's one thing to be willing to take that sort of punishment if a trip to the Super Bowl's on the line. It's another thing to want to stand in there in the first game of a 16-game season.

So this all seems to add up that perhaps, the Saints would be the favorite in the game. But it's a long season - 16 games, as I say.

WERTHEIMER: Well, so it is.

PESCA: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: Who does challenge the Saints?

PESCA: In their own division in the NFC, perhaps the Green Bay Packers, another team connected to Brett Favre. They're going to have a great offense this year. Maybe if the Saints do make the Super Bowl again it could be a rematch. But people don't like talking about the Indianapolis Colts, even though statistically they were the best team, by far, in football last year.

Some of the sexier new picks for teams to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl include the New York Jets, because they have this HBO reality show and they have all these personalities.

But the team the Jets play in week one, the Baltimore Ravens, are a very, very good team. They're very good at defense and their offense keeps getting better. They just added a receiver, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a really great receiver who the Seattle Seahawks said, oh, yeah, we're way to good for T.J. Houshmandzadeh, even though we very well may be the worst team in football.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But, of course, I want to get into the mind of the Redskins fans, because they have a lot going on, and luckily I'm talking to one. I know you're a huge Redskins fan, Linda. What do you think of your team this season?

WERTHEIMER: Well, we've got some new good things: Mike Shanahan, the new coach, and Donovan McNabb, the new quarterback. So that gives us some reason to be hopeful. But, you know, Redskin fans are really never hopeful. We prepare for the worst every single year.

PESCA: Right. One thing about the Redskins and their owner is that he's always willing to make changes, perhaps way too many changes.

WERTHEIMER: Yes. And he can't leave it alone. He's sworn a mighty oath to Mike Shanahan, that he will leave him alone and let him do what he wants to do. We shall see.

PESCA: You're right. Although, why doesn't he ask Jim Zorn about that, the last coach that he fired unceremoniously. Yes.

WERTHEIMER: Let's talk about Reggie Bush of the Saints now. He is reportedly going to give back the Heisman Trophy that he won while playing college ball at USC. Where does all that stand?

PESCA: The Heisman actually may be yanked back from him. And we know that Reggie Bush doesn't like to fumble. But the Heisman Trophy's given to the best amateur football player. And it turns out that Reggie Bush wasn't really much of an amateur while he was at USC. His old program is on probation, because during his time there, players accepted money.

And so if Reggie Bush is asked in an unprecedented move to give back the Heisman he'd have to do so. He did win a Super Bowl. But still, every Heisman winner, you know, counts that as a chief accomplishment. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's sports correspondent Mike Pesca.

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