Leslie Frazier said he believes his Vikings defense will have an edge against New Orleans tonight because of the presence of E.J. Henderson, one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL.

Henderson missed last year's NFC Championship Game with the Saints because of a broken leg, the second consecutive season he has been injured.

But when he's healthy, he plays as well as anyone in the league.

"It's big for our football team and for our defense," said Frazier, the team's defensive coordinator. "His leadership, his awareness, his presence is big for our defense.

"We're excited about the fact that he's back on the field."

The overtime loss to the Saints last year cost the Vikings a trip to the Super Bowl, and Henderson would have made a big difference in that game.

"It was hard, it was hard. I rely on him so much, like our other players do, and to not have him out there was like a void on the football team," Frazier said. "I think he'll make a big difference, he has in the past. It's his first game back, he's excited, he's champing at the bit, and he's ready to go.

"He'll make a difference, for sure."

Frazier said he believes the defense is in good shape. Cornerback Cedric Griffin tore knee ligaments during the overtime kickoff in the NFC Championship Game, but has made an amazing recovery and might play tonight. The team is a bit short on cornerbacks, since rookie Chris Cook is out because of an injured knee.

'Ready to rock'

Henderson suffered a broken femur in his left leg on Dec. 6 against Arizona. It was a gruesome injury, one of the worst I've seen, but he has spent countless hours working out and said he is 100 percent ready.

"I'll be ready to rock," said Henderson, who would have made the Pro Bowl easily if he had been healthy all season. "I feel like I'm back to the player I was."

Henderson, 30, calls all the defensive signals and leads the team by example with his aggressive style of play. He said the only thing he needs to get back is "maybe a little bit of explosion, I think that will come with repetitions and games, but I'm ready to go. I feel as good as ever."

Frazier has coached in the NFL since 1999 with Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and the Vikings. He called Henderson the best linebacker he has coached.

"That's a big compliment, coming from him," Henderson said. "He's played with a lot of people, coached a lot of people, so I'm just going to try to come out and live up to that."

Henderson's rehabilitation was very difficult, considering how bad the break was.

"It was tough," said the eight-year veteran. "It was a tough seven-month process, but we're here now. It's a journey.

"I never wondered if I could play again. From Day 1, the doctors told me it was a straight fracture, no knee problems, once the bone healed I'd be ready to rock. So I've never had a question if I could play or not."

A tough task

After viewing films of the Saints, Henderson described them as a very explosive offense.

"They have big guys up front, very good offensive line, especially the interior three," he said. "They can run the ball, good screen team, excellent quarterback, Super Bowl MVP, in Drew Brees; we've got our work cut out for us.

"I've never played them in New Orleans -- missed them three times due to injuries --so I'm real excited."

With Henderson back, joined by outside linebackers Chad Greenway and Ben Leber, Brees will have a lot less time to throw the ball than he did last January.

Just another game

Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, a superstar in the league, isn't overhyping the Saints game.

"Of course we're going to go out and win this game and try to do our best to win, but at the end of the day you've got 15 more after this," he said. "We'll be fine. We've got a lot of great talent on the team, and they'll show up Thursday.

"The guys that step up in a new role, they'll just have to show how good they can play."

Williams sang the praises of Brees.

"He's tough on the defense; he gets the ball off in a timely manner," Williams said. "He does everything that you ask of a quarterback and keeps the people off of him.

"He's going to be a great test for us, but we've played him before. Without a doubt, he's the Super Bowl MVP, that shows you how good he is. It's going to be a tough test."

Said defensive end Jared Allen: "The stakes aren't as high as last year. This year it's the first one out of 16, and we take it as that."


The Vikings are 4 1/2-point underdogs against the Saints. Over the past 10 seasons, the defending Super Bowl champion is 9-1 in openers. The last team to lose was Denver in 1999.

The Vikings lost the Super Bowl following the 1969 NFL season to Kansas City 23-7. In that game, Chiefs coach Hank Stram was wired for sound and took some real shots at the Vikings. The following season, Vikings coach Bud Grant did something he seldom did by showing the film of that loss to his team, which was getting ready to play the Chiefs in the opener. The Vikings were fired up and dominated the game, beating Kansas City 27-10 on their way to a 12-2 regular season.

Oto Osenieks, the 6-8 native of Latvia who signed a tender with the Gophers basketball team, will be allowed to practice this year but not play because he didn't pass the standards of the NCAA Clearinghouse. Osenieks played for Brehm Prep in Carbondale, Ill., last season.

Two former Gophers -- safeties Shane Potter and Jimmy Thompson -- transferred to South Dakota and started for the Coyotes, who will play the Gophers on Saturday. Potter had 16 tackles against Central Florida; Thompson will miss the game after having surgery on his collarbone.

The Gophers didn't raise ticket prices for hockey but did raise basketball from $31 to $35. It's interesting, because usually hockey tickets are more in demand.

The Gophers football team got its 14th commitment for next season. Russell Haughton-James, a 6-5, 280-pound tackle from American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla., committed this week.

The Wall Street Journal reports that scalpers are getting an average of $372 for Vikings-Saints tickets this week.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com