EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It's become a routine during weeks of home games for Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer to open press conferences by pleading with fans to one-up themselves on the noise level from the previous home game.
"We need the fans to be loud and rowdy, and make this the loudest stadium that the Vikings have ever played in," Zimmer said Monday after the Vikings (13-3) returned to the practice field in preparation for Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints (12-5) at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Zimmer's not just pandering to the public. With a team built around a Zimmer defense that leads the league in fewest yards, points and third-down conversions allowed, he views crowd noise as a key advantage, especially when facing the likes of a Drew Brees.
"New Orleans is a heck of a football team," Zimmer said. "I really think being able to play at U.S. Bank Stadium with our fans and the crowd noise and Brees trying to change the protections and the audibles he makes at the line of scrimmage. I think that will play well into our hands."
It's up for debate as to whether the more cramped confines of the old Metrodome was more of a home-field advantage in terms of noise level. But U.S. Bank Stadium has proved to be a loud venue as the Vikings have gone 7-1 there in Year 2, including a 29-19 win over the Saints in the season opener.
This will be the first playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Zimmer shouldn't have any trouble getting the fans pumped to face the Saints. They remember all too well what happened eight years ago when these teams met in the NFC title game at the Superdome.
The Vikings outplayed the Saints in all facets except turnovers. They lost the turnover battle 5-2 and the game in overtime after Brett Favre threw an interception with the Vikings in field-goal range near the end of regulation.
And that game, of course, was Exhibit No. 1 in the Bountygate scandal that rocked the Saints and led to head coach Sean Payton being suspended for a full season.
"That was a long time ago," said defensive end Brian Robison, the only active Viking left from that game.
The Saints, of course, still have Brees left from that 2009 team that went on to win the Super Bowl. But they aren't the same team from Week 1.
A defense that debuted eight new starters in Week 1 has had time to gel in a way few would have predicted. And the running back tandem of Mark Ingram II and rookie Alvin Kamara went on to post record numbers after the Saints dumped former Vikings running back Adrian Peterson four weeks into the season.
The Saints are versatile on offense, as evidenced by the wild-card win over the Panthers. With Carolina determined to stop the run, Brees turned back the clock a bit and passed for 376 yards.
Of course, that came at home. Zimmer hopes the venue this week will help change those numbers.
The Vikings ended the regular season with their seventh offensive line combination.
They might open the playoffs with No. 8.
Although center Pat Elflein is expected to return and start after missing the regular-season finale with a shoulder injury, don't assume the Vikings will go back to a lineup that includes Mike Remmers at right tackle, Joe Berger at right guard and Jeremiah Sirles at left guard.
With Elflein out against the Bears, the Vikings moved Berger, a former starting center, to center, Remmers to right guard and Rashod Hill to right tackle.
Hill has played well in six starts at right tackle, while Remmers played well at right guard in his first action there in five seasons. Meanwhile, Berger has experience starting at left guard as well as center and right guard.
Don't be surprised if Berger starts at left guard and Sirles ends up being the odd man out.
"All I know is I'm ready," Elflein said. "I'm practicing. I'm rolling and ready to go."
Said Hill: "We're just building off of what we did against the Bears. We don't know yet what we'll do. We know we got Pat, he's good to go and healthy and everything."
Head coach Mike Zimmer was at the Superdome Jan. 24, 2010, when the Vikings lost to the Saints 31-28 in overtime in the NFC title game. He won't say who he was rooting for.
That's one of the more painful postseason losses in Vikings' history, not to mention the fact it also was Exhibit 1A in the Bountygate scandal that rocked the Saints' organization.
Zimmer, the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive coordinator at the time, was at the game because his son, Adam, was linebackers coach for the Saints.
"I was just sitting there observing. I wasn't really rooting for anybody," Zimmer said.
"I had some -- what are those? Hurricanes," said Zimmer, stating as best he could his impartial observance of that game.
NOTES: QB Sam Bradford continued practicing on Monday as the Vikings consider whether to activate him off injured reserve. It's unlikely that they will do so for the divisional playoff game against the Saints. Bradford's only full game played this season came in Week 1 at home against the Saints. He posted a career-high 143.0 passer rating while completing 27-of-32 passes for 346 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers. But he's also practiced only three times since having surgery to repair his bothersome left knee. ... C Pat Elflein, who has missed two of the last four games because of a shoulder injury, returned to practice on Monday. He is expected to be ready to start on Sunday. ... QB Case Keenum is being told to beware of the Saints' ability to knock passes down at the line of scrimmage. Short by quarterback standards, Keenum will need to know where DE Cameron Jordan is. Jordan had 12 of the Saints' 99 pass deflections during the regular season. ... CB Xavier Rhodes was named first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career. He has only two interceptions and 10 pass deflections, but has done an extraordinary job shutting down some of the league's best receivers, including Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. ... FS Harrison Smith, who was considered the team's greatest Pro-Bowl snub, was named first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career. As head coach Mike Zimmer's most versatile weapon, Smith had 1.5 sacks and a career-high five interceptions this season.