Five years ago: Vikes-Cards … and Packers?

Five years ago, Matt Birk and the Vikings were in Arizona looking like they'd wrap up a division title and enter the playoffs. Ryan Longwell was in Green Bay and thinking his season was going to end. Then Nate Poole's catch changed everything. Longwell and Birk recounted that strange day of vastly different emotions this week.

One game. Two players. Two very different accounts.

The Vikings can go a long way to wrapping up the NFC North Division title with a win Sunday at Arizona. Ironically, the last time the Vikings played in Arizona there was as much or more at stake – and it broke the hearts of Vikings fans.

On that day – Dec. 29, 2003 – the Vikings came into their regular-season finale with the Cardinals in Arizona with a 9-6 record. One win and the division title was theirs. The Vikings were a prohibitive favorite and had Arizona on the ropes. But a miraculous fourth-quarter comeback – capped by a touchdown bomb to wide receiver Nate Poole on a fourth-and-25 play – gave Arizona an improbable 18-17 victory.

Two times zones and about 80 degrees away, the Green Bay Packers were putting the finishing touches on a 31-3 beatdown of the Denver Broncos. Matt Birk was on the sidelines in Arizona as the Cardinals torched the Vikings defense. Ryan Longwell was on the sideline at Lambeau Field in what he had heard was a certain Minnesota victory.

Five years later, their recollections of that day are vastly different.

"I've blocked that out of my memory," Birk said of that game. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Longwell, on the other hand, said, "I'll never forget that moment" – providing a much clearer explanation of the shot heard ‘round the NFC lobbed up by Josh McCown.

The Packers sideline was pretty disconsolate in the closing moments of their game with Denver. They had done their job, but the team had mandated that the Vikings-Cardinals score not be shown on the Jumbotron. But, as typically happens, the grapevine of information had been working overtime and the word was out that the Vikings had the game essentially wrapped up. Arizona would need two touchdowns in the final minute to win. Despite having their own game well in hand, the mood on the Packers sideline was morose … for the moment.

"The Vikings were going to win, because they had been leading the whole game," Longwell said. "We were going to be out of the playoffs, so we were all really bummed. We went to the two-minute warning and it was as quiet as you have ever heard at Lambeau Field. During the timeout at the two-minute warning, the fans in the stands just erupt. We had no idea what they were doing. That was the moment that (Poole) caught the pass. We went from being out of the playoffs to winning the division and hosting a playoff game. I have never heard it that loud for nothing happening on the field."

The confusion over what was going on didn't last long. Longwell was able to witness a moment rarely seen – when thousands of people get information spreading by word of mouth – or, in this case, cheers.

"Those cheering started up in the sky boxes on their TVs that were showing the end of the Vikings game," Longwell said. "It made its way down through the crowd to us on the field like a fire moves. Coach (Mike) Sherman had made sure that score wasn't on the video board because he didn't want us to be distracted by watching the scoreboard. The crowd told us what was going on and the next thing we know, they're handing out division champion hats on our sideline."

The turn of emotion was incredible. The silence of Lambeau Field at the time the fans and players were convinced their season was ending made their gutting of the Broncos secondary. It was a great day to see the Packers impose their will on an opponent, but it was going to be unfulfilling … until the Hail Mary prayer of a pass was answered in Arizona.

"We had done our part," Longwell said. "We won handily, but didn't think it was going to matter. We had played well, but were all bummed because we didn't think it was going to be enough. From being out of the playoffs to not only being in, but being division champs and hosting a game the next week took us from nothing to everything in a matter of just a few seconds. It was amazing."

Poole went from obscurity to stardom in Green Bay within a matter of seconds. He was the NFL's version of Joe the Plumber. A few days later, he got a mini-ticker tape parade through Green Bay and a key to the city. The Packers wouldn't parlay that unexpected good fortune into a Super Bowl trip, but the following week provided a playoff memory that will haunt Matt Hasselbeck the rest of his career. Tied in overtime, the Packers and Seahawks went out for the coin flip and Seattle won. Hasselbeck said, "We'll take the ball and we're going to score." There was scoring on that drive, but it was a game-winning interception by the Packers to end the game and give Hasselbeck an unwanted catch phrase.

That sequence would not have been possible if not for Poole's catch, which Longwell said made that division-winning Sunday even more memorable.

"I'll never forget it," Longwell said. "It was a pretty remarkable experience to be a part of."

On the other side of the coin, Birk's amnesia continues. He said heading back to Arizona for the first time since that debacle is ancient history. The players have moved on. The teams don't have the same coaches and few of the same players. In his mind, there will be no bad karma about heading back to the scene of the crime in the desert.

"There's no application to what is happening today," Birk said. "It's in the past. If we're ever in that same circumstance, maybe we can draw from it, but it's not something we dwell on."

When reminded that, under new league rules, if an identical catch was made today, Poole would have been ruled out of bounds and the Vikings would have won the division and perhaps written their own chapter in history. Birk just shrugged and joked that he wasn't aware that particular rule had changed.

"I feel like Donovan McNabb now," Birk said with a smile. "I don't even know what the rules are."

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