That was the night that is hard to forget. It was the last time the Vikings sniffed the Super Bowl … and yet came up short again, just like they had in 2000 and 1998. But the 2009 NFC Championship Game held an especially bitter headline, even months later. The Saints went on to win the Super Bowl, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was disgraced when he became the center of the “Bountygate” scandal and eventually admitted to being part of a pay-for-injury scheme that assigned values to knocking out certain opponents.
Brett Favre took the worst of it during the NFC Championship match. He was beaten up badly by Williams’ ultra-aggressive defense and surprised everyone but himself when he gingerly rose from the training table at the Superdome, where his severely sprained ankle was taped following a high-low hit that the Saints were convinced would end his day.
As it turned out, Favre ended it for himself and the Vikings when he threw an interception at the 22-yard line with 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter as the Vikings were approaching field goal range. The Saints took the overtime kickoff and drove into Minnesota territory before kicking a 40-yard field for a 31-28 win.
It was three hours and 34 minutes of wounds. They were physical. They were emotional. And some of them were self-inflicted.
Favre threw two interceptions. Adrian Peterson fumbled twice and the Vikings fumbled six times, losing three of them.
On the other side was the Saints defensive coordinator pulling a lot of the strings that forced an extremely physical game on the field in front of an unbelievably raucous crowd finally feeling the ecstasy of having a championship team for their beaten down bayou.
The Saints were called for nine penalties for 88 yards and didn’t particularly seem to mind. Three of them were unnecessary roughness or roughing the passer against New Orleans.
“It wasn’t like the penalties weren’t uncalled or the late hits went uncalled,” Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway recalled last week. “To me, it was just that they were playing fast-aggressive and had some late hits that affected them. They gave up some penalties and stuff, kept us in a lot of the ballgame with our turnovers and stuff that we had. To me, I didn’t look at it like they were doing anything crazy.”
The Vikings will be facing a Gregg Williams defense again on Sunday. This time, it comes with a defensive line chock full of talent. Williams was suspended for the 2012 season and was a senior assistant defensive coach with the Tennessee Titans last year, but he has been coaching up the Rams defense this whole offseason and preseason.
Last year, they were second in the NFL in percentage of sacks per pass attempt (10.17), were third in total sacks (53) and tied for the NFL lead with 15 fumbles recovered.
Center John Sullivan, who like Greenway was part of that 2009 heartbreak, said pressure is the hallmark of a Williams defense.
“Obviously we’re familiar with Gregg. They’re going to bring a lot of pressure. We know that,” Sullivan said. “They play tough. His defenses have always played very physical.”
Asked specifically about that championship game, Sullivan was diplomatic but didn’t want to go there.
“I remember playing in a lot of great games (against Williams),” Sullivan said. “The past is the past. We’re focused on 2014. I’m not going to go back and look in the rear-view mirror on that one.”
The Vikings have lost to a Gregg Williams defense since, a 42-20 drubbing against the New Orleans Saints at the tail end of a 3-13 season they’d also love to forget.
This time, the Vikings have a well-respected offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, trying to keep Williams’ defense at bay, and there is a mutual respect between the longtime veterans of the NFL wars.
“One of the things that he does, he’s going to have to try to figure out is Gregg going to be like Buffalo, Washington, Jacksonville, New Orleans – what style of defense is he playing?” Williams said. “I do the same thing. It works both ways - San Diego, Oakland, Dallas, Cleveland – what is he doing? But we go back and take a look at all those things. I know they’re going to take a look at all those kind of things for us. They’re going to take a look about what we showed in preseason, which was very little. They did the same.
“There’s a little bit of guess work going on as far as what we know that they can do and how he goes about utilizing his personnel. It’ll be a chess match and once we get into the game it’ll be fun to see who can make the adjustments during the game, too. We’re both guessing on what we’re trying to do and then during the game you got to be able to hone in and focus in on this is what’s going on. Now you got to play.”
The Vikings can only hope it’s clean play this time around.
“He’s like your prototypical pro guy. He can make every throw. He’s got a strong arm. He can just flick a quick release, get the ball out of his hand fast. He’s a guy that is capable winning against anybody. He’s just that kind of a guy. That’s why he’s an elite backup in this league for a long time,” Greenway said.
“They’re going to script for success. They’re going to want to get the ball out of his hands fast. They’re not going to want to get our pass rush going and quiet the crowd.”
“That brings back good memories, but now we’ve just got to move forward and execute each play and each down and just have fun with each other to be able to win this game,” Griffen said.
“It just happened in the (third preseason) game somehow. It got a little stiff at halftime and the knee just locked up on me,” he said. “I kept playing and then at halftime we sat for a while and I came back out and was a little stiff. It just started bothering me a little bit.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.