Saints and Vikings Meet at the Bayou; Brett Favre Going Home
Brett Favre is going home. Well, close enough.
As a lad growing up in Kiln, Miss., the Minnesota Vikings quarterback rooted faithfully for the perennially inept New Orleans Saints. What a difference three decades makes.
Next Sunday, Minnesota’s seemingly ageless wonder will venture into the raucous Louisiana Superdome in a matchup of the NFL’s two most potent offenses as the Vikings play the Saints in the NFC championship game.
Favre became the first 40-year-old quarterback to win an NFL playoff game Sunday when he led the Vikings to a stunningly easy 34-3 victory vs. the Dallas Cowboys, perhaps the most feared playoff team thanks to a blitzing defense and Tony Romo’s stellar play.
It was an afternoon of purple reign on both sides of the football, as the Vikings (13-4) dominated the lines of scrimmage. Favre, who had defied skeptics and fuming “Cheeseheads” back in Green Bay with a renaissance campaign, was magnificent again in his improbable storybook season.
With his surgically repaired right arm stronger than ever, Favre whipped four touchdown passes — three to wide receiver Sidney Rice, who was 5 when Favre was a rookie in 1991. Rice tied a league postseason record for most receiving scores in a game.
After the duo’s second scoring hook-up in the second quarter gave Minnesota a 14-2 lead, Favre sprinted downfield, arms raised, and leaped into the arms of Rice in the end zone.
It was a portrait of boyish exuberance for No. 4, who extended his NFL record for consecutive starts to 308. He also snapped an 0-for-3 playoff string against Dallas.
“The most fatigued and tired I got today was celebrating,” he said, smiling. “As long as I’m out there, the enthusiasm and the passion you see is real,” he said.
“I know guys feed off that, fans enjoy that because it is real and genuine. That you can’t fake. You can try but you can see right through it.”
Asked about the old warrior behind center, teammate and Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson was at a near-loss for words.
“Amazing,” he marveled. “I guess that’s why he’s a (future) Hall of Fame quarterback.”
The Saints are waiting
Next up for the Vikings: a trek to the Bayou and the deafening Superdome in New Orleans to confront the high-powered, top-seeded Saints, who enjoyed their best regular-season since entering the league as an expansion team in 1967.
The New Orleans-Minnesota confrontation puts Favre on the horns of a dilemma, even if it’s a rather small one. Favre also is friendly with Saints head coach Sean Payton, whom he sometimes sends text messages. Earlier in the season, the quarterback says he told the coach, ” ‘Secretly, I’m a Saints’ fan, you know.’
“We didn’t think we’d actually play (but) there was always an outside chance. Go figure,” Favre said. “All those years, I never wore a bag over my head. But I remember those days. They’re obviously a lot different football team now. They’re playing outstanding. It’s a tough environment. I hope we play better than Arizona played and Dallas played today.”
In their 43-year existence, the Saints never have played in the Super Bowl. In burying the Arizona Cardinals 45-14 on Saturday, New Orleans’ high-revving offense scored touchdowns on its first three possessions.
Sunday’s NFC title clash will be the first time the Saints (14-3) have hosted the NFC Championship game. It will be another dome-sweet-dome experience for the home team, too. Minnesota finished the season 9-0 on their turf, where Favre threw 25 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
The Superdome is expected to be every bit as boisterous as Mall of America Field was Sunday when the Vikings all but chased Romo out of the stadium.
“Doesn’t mean anything anymore,” said Vikings left guard Steve Hutchinson. “We’re going to be on the road and be in the exact same situation they (the Cowboys) were in. That place is just as loud as this one.”
For decades one of the most forlorn NFL franchises, New Orleans played its only conference championship game in 2006, losing 39-14 at Chicago.
Minnesota has defeated New Orleans in eight of their last nine games; the Vikings last won 30-27 in 2008. The Saints are favored Sunday by 4.
The Saints recovered from the blues of a late-season skid, regaining their mojo against the Cardinals. No team has advanced to the Super Bowl after losing its final three regular-season games, which the Saints did.
“There have been a lot of firsts since Sean Payton has been here in the organization and we want to keep that going,” said quarterback Drew Brees. “We want to bring this franchise a championship.”
The Saints rely on an explosive offense that was No. 1 in the NFL in scoring (510 points). They also boast an opportunistic defense led by safety Darren Sharper that produces points and field position for Brees, their cool, calculating Pro Bowl signal-caller.
“I expect a hostile environment, a pass-happy offense and a defense that is rallying to the ball,” said Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin.
Payton has multiple weapons, including running back Pierre Thomas, all-purpose threat Reggie Bush, wide receivers Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, plus talented tight end Jeremy Shockey.
Against Arizona, the Saints exceeded 40 or more points for the fifth time this season; nine times they scored 30 or more. Brees is a dart-thrower, especially in the Superdome where he completed 73% of his passes during the regular season.
“If you don’t put pressure on him,” said Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, “he’s gonna pick you apart.” The Vikings led the NFL in sacks this season with 48.
Decades of postseason frustration is even more pronounced for the Vikings. Minnesota is 0-4 in Super Bowls.
Vikings owner Zygi Wilf gave Favre a two-year, $20-million contract when he signed him last August. Before Sunday, Minnesota had not won a playoff game since 2004. Favre responded with his finest statstical season in 19 seasons.
Favre starred 17 seasons with the Packers before a one-season stint with the New York Jets ended in disappointment and injury, and has not played in the Super Bowl since after the 1997 season. He threw a costly interception two years ago in the NFC title game when the Packers lost to the New York Giants.
Favre won his only Super Bowl, after the 1996 season, at the Superdome. Favre has a playoff record of 13-10, but has won only four of his last 11 postseason games.
“I know how difficult it is to win a playoff game,” he said. “This moment is really special, regardless of age. I probably appreciate more than the guys in our locker room, especially the young guys. They think, ‘Oh, what’s the big deal? We’ll be here every year.’
“I hope that’s the case. More times than not, you’re watching someone else.”
That’s why the Vikings and their fans were so amped Sunday.
When Joe Kapp, quarterback of the Vikings in their first Super Bowl in 1970, sounded the pre-game gjallarhorn to signal “the Vikings are coming,” it was a harbinger for the Vikings. Defensive ends Jared Allen and Ray Edwards hounded Romo, who was sacked six times, lost two fumbles and threw an interception.
“The game is not rocket science,” Romo said. “If you have the ability to get pressure from the front four, it allows you to play a pretty sound game defensively.”
Minnesota’s offense was much like the Saints a day earlier — explosive. The Vikings struck in the first quarter when Favre launched a pretty pass down the far sideline into the hands of Rice for a 47-yard touchdown.
After the game, Vikings right guard Anthony Herrera summed up Favre best when he said, “He was like a kid in a candy store all day long.”