MINNEAPOLIS — When Adrian Peterson wore purple, the revered running back was naturally off limits for Minnesota’s defense during practice.
“But now it’s a must,” Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “You have to tackle him. It’s going to be pretty fun.”
Such will be the strange sight in Minnesota on Monday night, when Peterson lines up in the New Orleans backfield with his white, black and gold Saints jersey and his old friends eagerly eyeing him up from the other side.
“Everson Griffen. Without a doubt,” Peterson said, predicting the Vikings player most interested in making contact with the franchise’s all-time leading rusher.
“He’s my boy, but we went back and forth in practice a lot, and he talks a lot of trash. I’m kind of quiet. I don’t say much. But he’ll be amped up to try to hit me.”
Griffen will have plenty of help, when the Vikings host Peterson and the Saints in a season opener overflowing with made-for-TV story lines.
“I’m not going to back down from him,” Rhodes said. “He told me that we’re going to see how that ends.”
How Peterson’s remarkable career concludes remains a mystery, though at age 32 it’s clearly in the twilight stage regardless of his freak-of-nature physical condition and lifelong spirit of determination.
He’ll start with the Saints as a part-time player, with the established Mark Ingram and the rookie Alvin Kamara sharing the carries and catches out of the backfield in this Drew Brees-led, pass-first offense.
“I think it’ll be an adjustment for a couple weeks going in, because I’m used to being in there at all times,” Peterson said, adding: “I knew what I was getting myself into. I know there’s going to be times when I carry the load and there’s going to be times when the load is not as heavy, you know?”
After Peterson was limited to 72 yards on 37 carries by a right knee injury and a leaky offensive line last season, the Vikings predictably declined the $18 million option on his contract and signed free agent Latavius Murray from Oakland instead.
Then they drafted Dalvin Cook out of Florida State. Peterson eventually picked the Saints for the opportunity to play close to his east Texas roots and suburban Houston home and behind the 10-time Pro Bowler Brees.
While Peterson will be plenty motivated in his return to Minnesota against a Vikings team not cool with him stealing their show, the prime-time kickoff and national TV audience for the start to another season will ultimately steer the emotions of the participants on both sides.
“I think that’s enough excitement and enough reason to be playing all out,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Here are some other angles to follow around the game:
STILL GOING STRONG
Brees led the NFL in passing yards for a record seventh time in 2016. In five games against the Vikings, he’s 4-1 with a 69 percent completion rate and an average of 294 yards passing per game. He has only thrown four interceptions and been sacked four times.
“He’s got an unbelievable arm, too, but one of the things that sets him apart, I think, is he’s so quick getting rid of the football, knowing where to go to the different spots,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He really is a Hall of Fame kind of quarterback.”
CENTER OF ATTENTION
The Vikings have a long history of excellence at the center position, dating to the arrival of eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame member Mick Tingelhoff in the franchise’s second season. Tingelhoff (six), Jeff Christy (two) and Matt Birk (six) combined for 14 selections for the Pro Bowl. Now third-round draft pick Pat Elflein will be the first rookie to start at center since Tingelhoff in 1962.
“You don’t want to stress yourself out and freak out and make it bigger than it is,” Elflein said. “Be excited, but don’t overexcite yourself.”
The Saints have finished 7-9 after starting 1-3 in each of the past three seasons. They’ve lost three straight openers.
Payton and Zimmer were once assistants together on the staff of coach Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys, and both of them continue to call Parcells often for advice in their current role.
“He is a heck of a coach, smart,” Zimmer said. “We got a chance to go against each other every day at practice. He was very innovative.”
Brees will be without wide receiver Willie Snead, who’s suspended for the first three games. Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford will miss wide receiver Michael Floyd, who is facing a four-game suspension. Both punishments are for drunken driving offenses.