January 24, 2012

2010: Saints Defeat Vikings in Overtime for First NFC Title

The NFC Championship game on January 24, 2010 featured the New Orleans Saints, who had never been to a Super Bowl in their history dating back to 1967, against the Minnesota Vikings, who had been to four, but none since 1976.

The Saints, in their fourth season under Head Coach Sean Payton, featured an exciting and high-scoring offense. QB Drew Brees (pictured at right) compensated for his relatively short stature (6’0”) with outstanding passing accuracy and a quick release. The receiving corps was talented and led by WR Marques Colston (70 catches, 1074 yards). The running backs were more nondescript, but RB Pierre Thomas had emerged as the best of the group. Defense had been the team’s downfall in prior years, but under first-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the platoon had become more aggressive and opportunistic. MLB Jonathan Vilma went to the Pro Bowl, as did the tandem of SS Roman Harper and 34-year-old FS Darren Sharper, who intercepted 9 passes. New Orleans won its first 13 games before losing its last three, but pulverized the Cardinals by a score of 45-14 in the Divisional playoff round.

The key player for Minnesota was 40-year-old QB Brett Favre. After 16 years with division-rival Green Bay and a season with the Jets, Favre ended the annual speculation regarding his retirement to sign with the Vikings in the preseason. Proving the critics wrong who believed he could no longer hold up to the rigors of a full season, he passed for 4202 yards and 33 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. He was helped by the arrival of rookie WR Percy Harvin (60 catches, 790 yards) and the improved play of WR Sidney Rice (83 catches, 1312 yards), who both were selected to the Pro Bowl. RB Adrian Peterson rushed for 1383 yards and 18 touchdowns. The defense led the NFL in sacks, spearheaded by DE Jared Allen, and was second best against the run.

There was a record crowd for a Saints game of 71,276 at the Louisiana Superdome. It was the Vikings scoring first, however, on the initial series of the game as they drove 80 yards in 10 plays. Favre completed six passes for 47 of those yards and Peterson closed out the drive with a 19-yard touchdown run. New Orleans came right back on its first possession, however, going 76 yards in seven plays that ended with Brees throwing a short pass to Pierre Thomas out of the backfield that covered 38 yards for a TD.

It seemed certain to be a shootout when Minnesota responded with another scoring drive. Penalties helped the Vikings along, with a defensive holding call converting a third down and, after a 15-yard gain on a Favre pass to WR Bernard Berrian that took the ball into New Orleans territory, a 15-yard unnecessary roughness call following a short running play moved them to the 31. Favre threw to Harvin for 20 yards on a third-and-seven play and, on another third-down pass, he connected with Rice for a five-yard TD. The score was 14-7 after one quarter of action.

The pace slowed as the teams traded punts, but then on a third-and 10 play from his own 36 yard line, Brees passed to RB Reggie Bush for a 28-yard gain. Two runs by Pierre Thomas, surrounding an 11-yard pass completion to TE Dave Thomas, set up a nine-yard scoring pass to WR Devery Henderson. With the successful extra point, the game was again tied at 14-14.

The contest again settled down to the teams trading punts until late in the second quarter. The Vikings got a break when Bush muffed a punt deep in his own territory and LB Kenny Onatolu recovered for Minnesota at the ten yard line. Peterson ran for six yards, but then a handoff exchange from Favre to Peterson was fumbled and LB Scott Fujita grabbed it to end the threat. The score remained tied at the half.

New Orleans got off to a fast start in the third quarter when WR Courtney Roby returned the second half kickoff 61 yards to the Minnesota 37. Brees tossed a pass to Dave Thomas that gained 17 yards and three plays later Pierre Thomas put the Saints in front with a nine-yard touchdown run.

The Vikings came back with a nine-play, 80-yard series. The big plays were three Favre passes to TE Visanthe Shiancoe (pictured at right) that totaled 67 yards. Peterson carried for the last yard and, with the successful PAT, it again was a tie game at 21-21.

Following a punt by the Saints, Minnesota was backed up to its 10 yard line but put together another promising drive. Running effectively and getting 15 yards on a roughing-the-passer penalty on a third-and-four play, the Vikings advanced to the New Orleans 34. But in a second-and-eight situation, Favre was intercepted by Jonathan Vilma. Not only did the Saints get a takeaway, but the veteran quarterback suffered a leg injury (he returned to the contest).

New Orleans again had to punt on the final play of the period. Two plays into the fourth quarter, Harvin fumbled and NT Remi Ayodele recovered for the Saints at the Minnesota 12. Brees threw to Bush for a five-yard TD (thanks to a successful challenge by Payton, as the running back was originally ruled down at the one) and the home team was once more in front at 28-21.

Again the Vikings mounted a threat as Peterson ran for a 27-yard gain to midfield and, in a third-and-10 situation, Favre connected with Berrian for 30 yards to the New Orleans 20. But two plays later, another turnover undid a promising drive as Berrian fumbled when hit by CB Tracy Porter after catching a pass and Vilma recovered at the five.

The Saints went three-and-out on their next possession. Taking over at their 43 following the punt, the Vikings put together a seven-play scoring drive highlighted by Favre passing to Shiancoe for 16 yards on a third-and-six play and Peterson rushing for an 18-yard gain. It was Peterson finishing the series with a two-yard carry for a touchdown and Ryan Longwell again tied the score at 28-28 with the extra point.

New Orleans had another short series and punted. With 2:37 left in regulation, the Vikings again mounted a drive. On a third-and-eight play, Favre passed to Berrian for 10 yards and followed up with a throw to Rice for 20 that took the ball into Saints territory. RB Chester Taylor carried for a 14-yard gain, but the New Orleans defense stiffened and stopped two running plays before the Vikings were penalized for having too many players in the huddle. Facing a third-and-15 situation at the New Orleans 38, Favre, rolling to his right, threw an ill-advised pass that was intended for Rice but instead was intercepted by Porter. The game remained tied after four quarters and went into overtime.

The Saints won the toss and started off at their 39 after Pierre Thomas returned the kickoff 40 yards. A defensive holding penalty on a third-and-six play kept the series going and a nine-yard Brees completion to Henderson set up a fourth-and-one situation at the Minnesota 43. Taking the chance and going for it, Thomas dove ahead for two yards and New Orleans continued the advance to the Minnesota 22. From there, first-year PK Garrett Hartley (pictured at left) booted a 40-yard field goal and at 4:45 into overtime the Saints were winners by a score of 31-28 and on their way to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

The Vikings dominated statistically, outgaining New Orleans (475 yards to 257) and leading in first downs (31 to 15). However, they also fumbled six times, losing three of them, and turned the ball over a total of five times – it proved to be their undoing. The Saints turned the ball over once.

Drew Brees completed 17 of 31 passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns with none intercepted. Devery Henderson led the New Orleans receivers with 4 catches for 39 yards and one TD. Pierre Thomas gained 38 yards on his two receptions that included a TD and rushed for 61 yards on 14 carries with another score.

For Minnesota, Brett Favre went to the air 46 times and completed 28 for 310 yards and a touchdown, but with the two big interceptions. Adrian Peterson (pictured below) ran the ball 25 times for 122 yards and three TDs. Bernard Berrian caught 9 passes for 102 yards and Visanthe Shiancoe contributed 4 receptions for 83 yards.

“I've felt better,” said a disappointed Favre afterward. “It was a physical game - a lot of hits. You win that and you sure feel a lot better.”

“It was as loud as I have ever heard it in the dome,” Drew Brees said. “It feels so good to know we have given our fans an NFC championship. We have another championship to go after in two weeks.”

Facing the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl (the first time the top-seeded teams in each conference faced each other for the title since 1993), the Saints finished off their climb to the top with a 31-17 win. They returned to the postseason in 2010 with a lesser record (11-5) and as a wild card, although still offensively potent, and were upset in the first round by the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks.

Brett Favre (pictured below) returned for a twentieth season that proved to be disastrous – not just for him, but the team. His streak of playing in 299 straight games finally ended amid a rash of injuries, and it appeared that age had finally caught up to him. Beyond Favre, the offensive line and defense showed signs of decline and the Vikings sank to 6-10. By the end, Coach Brad Childress was already gone and Favre retired for good.