In Drew Brees’ mind, this Thursday’s season-opener at Lambeau Field is a delayed meeting between the Saints and the Packers. Brees figured the two teams would meet in New Orleans in the NFC title game last January.
“We knew all along the Packers were going to roll through the playoffs. We had it in our (plans) that we had to go to Seattle and win, go to Chicago and win, and then we’ll see the Packers in the dome. The Packers upheld their end of the bargain,” Brees said.
Who knows? It might’ve turned out that way, had it not been for a stunning upset victory over the Saints by the 7-9 Seahawks. Had it not been for the Seahawks, the NFL might’ve had the matchup it wanted, which is exactly what the NFL has given us for this year’s “Kickoff Game.”
The Packers and the Saints, two high-octane offenses with two of the game’s premier quarterbacks, will open the curtain to the 2011 NFL season this Thursday. It’s a matchup a lot of fans and media think could be a preview of this season’s NFC title game. Does that make this a game for homefield advantage?
“That’s so far down the road,” Brees said.
The Packers are the defending Super Bowl champions. The Saints are the team from whom the Packers inherited the Lombardi Trophy, thus making this Thursday’s game a matchup of the past two Super Bowl champions. It is, to say the least, a game the league can sell, and TV ratings are expected to be high.
“Emotions are high. The NFL does a lot in and around the game. It’s the kickoff to the season. If you’re one of the teams in that game, you feel it’s special. It’s a special feeling,” Brees said. “Yeah, it’s a big game. It’s honoring you as the Super Bowl champs for the year before.”
The Saints are dedicated to getting back to the big game. They added a few players to their roster, including Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, and Brees rallied the team during the lockout with players-only workouts Brees believes will have a galvanizing effect.
“I like to think that helped us a lot, especially with the young players, because we had every one of our draft picks there. We tried to simulate as best we could a normal offseason,” Brees said.
What Brees and the Saints know is what the Packers are about to learn, which is to say the difficulty that goes with defending a Super Bowl title.
“So much of it is eliminating distractions. All anybody wants to talk about is the Super Bowl hangover,” Brees said. “It’s a pretty quick turnaround. You’re enjoying being Super Bowl champs, so the next season really sneaks up on you. Did I get enough time to recharge my batteries?”
The answer to that question for the Saints last season may have been no. The Saints got off to a sluggish, 4-3 start that cost them homefield advantage in the playoffs.
“They’re waiting for something bad to happen to you, to say I told you so. It becomes harder because everybody is gunning for you,” Brees added.
Saints Head Coach Sean Payton says the tonic for a Super Bowl hangover is “playing good football week in and week out and handling adversity.”
Interestingly, Thursday’s game is also a matchup of head coaches that interviewed against each other in 2006; both were candidates to become the Packers’ next head coach. Mike McCarthy, who had been an assistant in New Orleans, got the job in Green Bay and Payton got the job in New Orleans.
“There are some parallels. Both opportunities came at a similar timeframe,” Payton said.
The opportunity this Thursday will be for one of these two teams to get out to a fast start, against a team that figures to be in the other’s path to Super Bowl XLVI. Additional coverage - Sept. 4