NEW ORLEANS - You never know, during a season, which game will prove critical, which week will alter the course of a franchise and a dozen careers.
You do get the sense that the Vikings' trip to New Orleans could be the fulcrum on which the 2008 season, and perhaps the careers of coach Brad Childress and many key members of the organization could pivot.
A victory would put the Vikings at 2-3 in a mediocre division, with two games left against the comically inept Detroit Lions, two left against the division-leading Chicago Bears, and one left, at home, against a Packers team that has yet to prove it's as good without Brett Favre as it was with him.
A victory will mean the Vikings have survived their toughest stretch of schedule without losing ground to the Packers or losing sight of the Bears, and could springboard them toward a playoff berth that could justify, to ownership, everything Childress has done as a coach and the organization has done in building the roster.
A loss would make it statistically improbable for the Vikings to make the playoffs even in a mediocre division, and might leave owner Zygi Wilf questioning every single move he and his brain trust have made.
A victory buys time for free-agent acquisitions Bernard Berrian, Madieu Williams and Thomas Tapeh -- and trade acquisition Jared Allen -- to prove their worth, and for Bryant McKinnie to prove he was worthy of the lucrative new contract he has soiled with his continued misbehaviors.
Tapeh has proved a bust, failing to beat out the previously irrelevant Naufahu Tahi at fullback. Williams has been a bust because of a neck injury. The injury isn't his fault, but he has an injury history that made him a seeming risk.
Berrian has been a bust because of both performance and injury, although his lack of production could stem from a toe injury that has limited his speed.
Allen has not proved himself to be the game-changing force the Vikings had hoped he would be, although that stems from the ineptitude of the Vikings offense, which has rarely put an opponent in a position where it was forced to pass. What is more alarming than a relative lack of production from Allen has been the inability of the supposedly fearsome front four to dominate games.
The Vikings' decision to trade up to draft quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in the second round in 2006, and their subsequent decisions to force him into the lineup and then enter the 2008 season with him as their unquestioned starter, will be justified only if he recovers the starting job this season and performs well.
Their decision to settle for Gus Frerotte as their backup quarterback will be justified only if he can win games after Childress yanked Jackson just two games into the season, a move that spoke volumes about Childress' lack of confidence in his chosen starter.
A victory, presumably earned with a strong running game and plenty of carries by Adrian Peterson, could momentarily justify Childress' world view -- that power football can win in the NFL, that guards, tackles and backs can be more important than quarterbacks and receivers.
A loss, presumably the result of a porous pass defense and a one-dimensional offense, would be a sign that Childress' rigid offensive ideas are passé in a league dominated by star quarterbacks and innovative offensive coaches.
Maybe it's just another game, one of 16, one that can be forgotten or survived regardless of the outcome. But in a season of reckoning, the Vikings' game tonight in New Orleans bears the aura of importance.
A victory might change the direction of the season. A loss could spur far-reaching changes throughout the organization. If there was ever a game in which Childress needed to prove his worth, this could be it.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • firstname.lastname@example.org