The New Orleans Saints have heard the cheap-shot chatter. They know they stand accused of roughing up a legend, when they landed shot after shot — some of them questionable — on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in January's NFC championship game.
And it doesn't bother them.
The resounding message from the black-and-gold Who Dats: Who cares?
"We play defense, that's our job," said linebacker Jonathan Vilma, whose team plays host to the Vikings on Thursday in the NFL opener at the Superdome. "We go out there and hit, tackle guys, get turnovers, and we don't apologize for that. It's not malicious."
Evidently, a beating is in the eyes of the beholder, because Vikings Coach Brad Childress didn't see things the same way. He saw his 40-year-old quarterback absorb 16 ton-of-bricks hits, including one high-low combination that Favre initially thought might have snapped his leg.
"I understand a quarterback's going to get hit," Childress told reporters this week. "It's football. I don't have any illusions about that. What I hate to see are the late hits or attempts to hurt anybody. I don't think there's a place for that in the game."
The complaints aren't coming from Favre, who begins his 20th season Thursday night after undergoing ankle surgery in the spring.
"Every defense wants to get the opposing quarterback out, and that's just the way it is," he said. "Had that been us, and say we played Drew [Brees, the Saints' quarterback] and we were able to hit him like that, we sure would have been saying, 'Great.'
"I wish we had won the football game. I'm not so concerned how we lost it. It's physical. It's football."
Statistically, the Vikings dominated that 31-28 overtime defeat, collecting more yards (475 to 257) and first downs (31 to 15), and controlling the ball nearly nine minutes longer.
The big difference? The Vikings had five turnovers to the Saints' one.
New Orleans defenders don't like to refer to those as turnovers but as takeaways — not gifts, but the payoff for being so grabby. The Saints had 39 takeaways last season, second to Green Bay's 40.
"We could have had more" in the NFC championship game, Saints defensive tackle Remi Ayodele said. "We take a lot of pride in that. We're going to try to do the same thing in this game."
What's more, the Saints say they are going to take the same approach to roughing up Favre. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said he directed his players in the championship game to keep doing what they had done all season. He points to the similar beatings the Saints delivered in 2009 to the New York Giants' Eli Manning, New England's Tom Brady, Arizona's Kurt Warner and Atlanta's Matt Ryan.
"It's not just quarterbacks," Williams said. "It's with the running backs too. We think that the cumulative hits on a running back will also take the toll in the fourth quarter."
Asked if any team did a more effective job of wearing down opposing offensive players last season, Williams said: "No. Not last season. And that was why [Coach Sean Payton] hired me. He wanted that attitude on defense."
Williams said Exhibit A for that attitude adjustment is safety Darren Sharper, who had two huge hits on Favre — his longtime Green Bay teammate — in the championship game.
"The thing I'm most proud of is, Darren Sharper in the last three years of his career wouldn't hit the water if he fell out of a boat," Williams said. "Last year, he might have been one of the biggest impact hitters on our team. He had more big hits — what we call smacks — than anybody on our team."
Favre, for one, isn't about to flinch.
"Getting hit and things like that — I can handle that," said the quarterback, who has made a record 285 consecutive starts. "If it is an injury that is a bruise here or there or a slight pull, I can deal with all those things. I can't control the other stuff. People continue to say, 'Can he hold up the whole year?' You can say that about any quarterback that plays the game.
"It seems like at age 40 and soon to be 41, that I am the easy target to pick on like, 'It's only a matter of time.' Yet, I continue to outlast all these guys."