As the Minnesota Vikings lead up to the Monday night game against the San Francisco 49ers, the 49ers provided a watershed moment for the Vikings in their epic 2009 season that is remembered vividly by fans and Vikings players from that team.
It was a game that provided a dream finish for the noisy fans in the Metrodome. But that same finish was a nightmare for 49ers quarterback and current Vikings backup Shaun Hilll.
“That’s a game I’m sure Vikings fans remember happily,” Hill said. “For us, it was devastating.”
The game in question was a 27-24 win by the Vikings that gave fans the first true glimpse of what they were getting with quarterback Brett Favre.
The Vikings entered their Sept. 27, 2009 game with the 49ers with a 2-0 record, but the team had seemingly won despite Favre, not because of him. In his first two games, he had completed a lot of passes – 37 of 48 – but they had gained just 265 yards, a scant 5½ yards per attempt. Fans and media alike were openly questioning whether Favre still had the kind of explosiveness that had already made him a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Favre’s passing yardage totals in those first two games – 110 and 155 yards – were seven yards fewer than Peterson had on the ground through two games (272) and A.P. had one more touchdowns (4) than Favre had accounted for. He was struggling to throw the ball deep and there was open skepticism that Favre has lost the magic, except for those who were game-planning for him.
“Our coaching staff knew exactly what Brett was capable of,” Hill said. “We knew that he could take over a game if you didn’t pressure him and he was a concern all week heading into that game.”
In a game that would feature a ton of big plays, early on it appeared as though it was going to be all Minnesota. The first half was dominated by the Vikings, who held a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter before a long kickoff return by Allen Rossum set up Hill, who took the 49ers on a touchdown drive to cut the deficit to 10-7.
The Vikings added another field goal – a 52-yarder from Ryan Longwell from the outer reaches of his range – and looked to add more points before halftime. Lining up for a field goal with six seconds remaining in the half, Longwell’s field goal was blocked by Ray McDonald and scooped up in stride by Nate Clements, who returned it 59 yards for a touchdown.
At the time, nobody knew how raucous the Metrodome crowd was going to get because, as the teams went to halftime, nobody was cheering and those that weren’t sitting in stunned silence were booing as the Niners took an improbable 14-13 lead to halftime.
Hill said he and his teammates were upbeat because they had been outplayed in the first half, yet, thanks to a big special teams play, they had the lead and felt like they had the favored Vikings on the ropes. Every game has its own flow to it. You can have a 45-42 shootout or a 6-3 defensive battle. You never know what you’re going to get, but it seemed clear this game was going to end unlike most.
“Each game is different,” Hill said. “The only thing that is the same is that you play 60 minutes and see how it ends. A lot of things can happen in those 60 minutes and no two games get a rhythm that is exactly the same.”
With the clock winding down in the third quarter, the 49ers looked to keep momentum on their side with a 37-yard Joe Nedney field goal to increase their lead to 17-13, but the craziness was just getting started.
On the ensuing kickoff, rookie Percy Harvin returned the kick 101 yards for a touchdown and, just as San Francisco had stolen momentum with a special teams play, Harvin’s electric return gave the Vikings back the lead at 20-17.
Hill led his team on another scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter, capped off with another touchdown pass to Vernon Davis and took a 24-20 lead. It appeared for all intents that lead would hold up. With the Vikings at midfield, they felt obligated to go on a fourth-and-5 play from the San Francisco 47-yard line that failed, leaving San Francisco with the ball and 1:47 to play. The coaching staff called three running plays to Glen Coffey, who picked up a combined 7 yards. The Vikings burned all three of their timeouts and forced a punt, which went into the end zone to give Favre the ball on the 20-yard line.
“You never want to give a guy like Favre time on the clock, but we felt good about where we were at,” Hill said. “The time kept ticking and we felt time was on our side.”
Refusing to give up the deep pass, Favre moved the ball with short passes of 12 yards to Visanthe Shiancoe and 9 yards to Sidney Rice, who got out of bounds with 1:05 to play. Favre completed passes of 5 and 15 yards to Harvin and a 7-yard sideline route to Bernard Berrian, who got out of bounds with 12 seconds left and the ball on the San Fran 32-yard line.
The Vikings had a chance, albeit a small one. There was only time for two plays and anything over the middle would likely be the last play of the game. Exhausted, Harvin came out and was replaced by Greg Lewis, a player who had been signed after the release of popular veteran Bobby Wade. Lewis hadn’t caught a pass and even upbeat radio play-by-play man Paul Allen wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of the game being on the line and a veteran with no catches replacing the team’s most electrifying downfield threat.
That would change in the span of 10 seconds. Flushed out of the pocket by the 49ers pass rush, Favre fired a laser to the back of the end zone to a crossing Lewis, who jumped up to catch the ball and dragged both feet inches inside the back line for a touchdown and a thrilling 27-24 Vikings win.
Hill, who had begun his career as a Viking, was no stranger to the deafening din that the stadium and its fans could create. But even he had to admit they turned the amplifier up to 11 on that play.
“That place was always loud,” Hill said. “There was something about the roof that trapped all the noise and Vikings fans can bring the noise. We had kept them quiet for so long during that game that, when it ended like it did, it was probably as loud as I ever heard it, but, like I said, it was always pretty loud.”
As Hill and his Vikings teammates meet up with the 49ers for just the second time since that instant-classic game, they will be looking to keep the 49ers crowd from creating the ear-splitting roar that still hangs in his memory.
As a pro, players are taught to let the losses go and cut short any celebrations following a win. There’s always a game the next week to prepare for, until the last one. While Hill has gone on to be part of many games since, he has tried to put the game out of his memory, but it took longer than just about any other loss his teams suffered over the years.
“That one stung quite a bit,” Hill said. “It was a game we thought we had on the road and it got taken from us,” Hill said. “The good thing is that was a long time ago. I had a couple of sleepless nights right after it, but none since.”