NFC Championship Game: Vikings @ Saints – Getting Back to the Bowl


After a season of schisms, migraines, meltdowns and miracles, the Minnesota Vikings stand one game away from returning to the Super Bowl.

Unless you’re pushing 40, you won’t even remember the last time the Vikings played for the big prize.  Younger Viking fans, though, can vividly recall their last two trips to the NFC Title Game, contests that ended in painful disappointment.

For a lot of us, today is about kicking out the ghosts of conference championship game failures past and welcoming a new and unfamiliar visitor into our hearts:  the joy of making it to the Super Bowl.

That joy is something lifelong Brett Favre fans know well.  They experienced it twice in the ’90s, and once even got to watch their golden boy hoist the trophy.

The promise of that kind of joy made many a Viking fan turn their desperate eyes to Favre, who thus far has not let them down.  Though the season took its crazy twists and turns, sometimes down an avenue that seemed to lead toward total destruction, Favre remained on the path of consistency.  When all was said and done, Favre had not only lived up to expectations but surpassed them.  Actually, obliterated them.

And he did it again last weekend against the Cowboys, handling the pressure in a way Tony Romo can only dream of, and spinning yet another offensive masterpiece.

Thanks to Favre, and a Purple People Eater-esque performance from the defensive line, the Vikings find themselves on the cusp of history, with nothing left in their way except the highest-scoring team in the NFL.

The Saints figure to unleash an offensive barrage the likes of which the Vikings have not seen all season.  If the Vikes are to stand their ground, they will need another surpassing performance from the defensive line, and a superlative effort from a secondary that has tended to wilt when removed from the friendly turf of the Metrodome.

For the offense, the key will be holding onto the ball.  The Saints make hay by forcing turnovers, handing the ball back to their offense for quick, devastating strikes.  Darren Sharper, one of the greatest pick-off artists in history, will prowl the defensive backfield hoping to jump some routes, while Jonathan Vilma and his mates try to stand up Adrian Peterson and strip him.

The Saints will also surely try to bring pressure against Brett Favre, even though Favre has shown all season that having a pass rush in his face doesn’t make a lot of difference.  Some of Favre’s most memorable plays, including the last-second game-winning heave to Greg Lewis against the 49ers, have come with defenders draped all over him.

Like last week, much of the attention will be on the Vikings’ offensive line, which restored its reputation against the Cowboys after coming under fire for its feeble performances against Arizona and CarolinaPhil Loadholt would seem to have developed into a reliable right tackle, but there are still big questions about the consistency of center John Sullivan, the health of left guard Steve Hutchinson and the effort-level of left tackle Bryant McKinnie.

No Vikings player, however, has a bigger question mark hanging over his head than Adrian Peterson.  After coming into the season touted as one of the all-time greats, Peterson let a lot of people down with his lack of statistical dominance, and sent lightning bolts of fury through Vikings fans’ brains with his fumbles.

For all his apparent struggles, Peterson still commands the attention of defensive coordinators, who load up the box with extra defenders even at times when the Vikings are in pass-mode.  Peterson will need to remain patient, go down when he’s tackled instead of fighting for extra yards only to have the ball stripped, and above all avoid the attacks of frustration that always seem to come when he fails to break big runs.

The Vikings do not need a big performance from Peterson today, they only need a solid, consistent one.  Brett Favre does not require a dominating running back in order to operate, as he’s demonstrated most of the season.  What he does need is his full array of receivers, which he will apparently have today, despite all the dire reports on Percy Harvin‘s health during the week.

The Vikings’ offensive advantage is really their versatility.  They can go deep or they can dink-and-dunk; they can work the middle with a sure-handed tight end or go to the edges with their receivers; they can run it or they can work the screen-and-swing game.  Whatever the Saints defense chooses to throw at the Vikings, the Vikings should have the personnel and quarterbacking savvy to answer.

The key, then, is the Vikings not letting the game get too big for them.  Brett Favre has ample experience in championship games, and should be able to keep things calm and loose in the huddle.  The big question is, can Brad Childress rise to the occasion with the same aplomb we expect from Favre, and not let the game get away from him as he has had a tendency to do throughout his Vikings tenure?

Childress will have some tough game-management decisions to make today, and one of them may even be the difference between winning and losing.  You can say that, since Childress already got a contract extension, the pressure is really off him, but if Childress wants Viking fans to finally embrace him, and not spend the rest of his tenure calling for his bald head on a platter, he must avoid the kinds of clock-management and penalty-challenging gaffes that tend to exacerbate already pressure-packed situations.

To put it bluntly, if the Vikings want to win today, they need to avoid losing their shit.  They must overcome the loud, raucous Superdome crowd; they must not commit dumb penalties (I’m looking at you Benny Sapp); they must maintain their discipline on kick coverage and not give up those big momentum-swinging returns.  It’s almost certain that they will take big shots from the Saints, but they must absorb those blows and punch back.

Otherwise, when the story of the game is written, the headline will be:  Vikings Wilt Under Pressure Again.  And Viking fans who already have terrible images of the flop vs. the Falcons and 41-Doughnut lodged forever in their brains will have to make room for even more bitter memories.

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