Cruel heartache knows the Minnesota Vikings.
Three NFC Championships have gone into overtime. The Vikings have lost two of them – in the 1998 season to the Atlanta Falcons and Sunday to the New Orleans Saints. The other overtime championship game stuck in between was lost by Brett Favre following the 2007 season, when he was with the Green Bay Packers and lost to the New York Giants.
Favre built up the Vikings throughout the season, but faced with a chance to advance to the Super Bowl, Favre and the Vikings let it all slip away – literally.
The Vikings fumbled the ball six times, losing three of them, and Favre threw two interceptions, the final one coming in the final seconds of regulation as the Vikings were in position to attempt the game-winning field goal. They battled through miscues throughout the game, but the final Favre flaw turned out to be the costliest.
With the game tied 28-28 in the final minute of the game, the Vikings advanced to the New Orleans 33-yard line. The Saints called a timeout and the offense returned to the field with 19 seconds remaining – 12 men on the field. That 5-yard penalty would have made a field goal even harder and Favre said he believed they were out of range (it would have been about a 56-yard attempt) and pressed the issue on third-and-15, throwing across his body and late to Sidney Rice. Tracy Porter intercepted and sent the game to overtime.
Favre and the offense would never have another opportunity. They lost the coin toss and lost the game when the Saints took the opening possession of overtime and drove into field goal position. Garrett Hartley's leg drove the dagger into the Vikings with a 40-yard field goal and a 31-28 win, giving Favre and the Vikings each their second overtime loss in the NFC Championship Game.
"This was a real tough one. I felt they didn't win the game, but rather we lost it," said Adrian Peterson. "You can't turn the ball over like that and expect to win."
That sudden end was the result of six Minnesota fumbles – two by Adrian Peterson and one each by Darius Reynaud, Bernard Berrian, Percy Harvin and Favre. They lost three of those. Only one of them (Harvin's) resulted in a New Orleans touchdown, but it was the Saints' final touchdown of the game.
The turnovers ruined what was otherwise a productive offensive evening, despite Favre getting battered and sprained (he hobbled off the field in the third quarter after spraining his ankle following an interception and didn't end up missing any time after it was taped up). Favre finished the game completing 28 of 46 passes for 310 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions for a 70.0 rating. Bernard Berrian was easily the top target, catching nine passes for 102 yards, and Adrian Peterson had 122 yards on 25 carries, his first 100-yard game since Nov. 15, and three touchdowns.
"I don't even know where to begin," Favre said. "All I can say is that it has been a great year. Sure I hoped we would have gone a little further. This is a great group of guys. It is just disappointing. And that is an understatement."
The defense held Drew Brees to 197 yards and three touchdowns on 17 of 31 passing, but Brees avoided the mistakes, throwing no interceptions and finished with 106.5 rating. Eight Saints caught passes, but none of them had more than 40 yards, and Pierre Thomas rushed 14 times for 61 yards. Reggie Bush was a non-factor, rushing seven times for eight yards, catching two passes for 33 yards and gaining no yards on punt returns.
The game couldn't have started much better for the Vikings. They took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards on 10 plays for a 7-0 lead. Favre hit five different receivers, but the longest gain was the initial completion, a 12-yarder to Jim Kleinsasser. But once across midfield, Peterson got the bulk of the work, taking an 11-yard screen pass and one play later going 19 yards for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead 5:25 into the game.
The Saints countered with their nearly flawless opening drive, featuring a lot of passing as well. New Orleans moved across midfield with a 13-yard pass to Robert Meachem and a 13-yard run by Thomas. But it was a pass to Thomas that really cost the Vikings when they lost contain and missed a tackle, allowing Thomas to go 38 yards for the touchdown and tie the game at 7 midway through the first quarter.
Favre responded with another touchdown drive as the teams traded scoring punches to start. The Vikings picked up two first downs on penalties – one a third-down holding call on Randall Gay on an incompletion to Harvin and another a personal foul on Bobby McCray for a late hit on Favre after he handed off. They also got first downs on completions of 15 yards to Berrian and 20 yards to Harvin. Facing third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Favre fired a bullet to Sidney Rice for a touchdown and a 14-7 Vikings lead with 2:11 to play in the first quarter.
But after a quick start, the teams traded punts into the second quarter before the Saints' quick passing game found a rhythm again. The biggest blown opportunity for the Vikings came on the initial third down – third-and-10 no less – and Bush broke free for a 28-yard reception. From there, the Saints moved into the red zone before Brees found Devery Henderson for a 9-yard touchdown to make it 14-14 with 10:30 to play in the first half.
The teams traded five punts in the second quarter before two big plays in the final two minutes of the half. When the Vikings punted to Bush, Eric Frampton hit him right when he caught it and caused a fumble that Kenny Onatolu recovered on the Saints 10-yard line. But the Vikings couldn't take advantage when Favre and Peterson botched a handoff exchange to turn the ball back over to the Saints, keeping the game tied at the half.
While the Saints avoided having a special-teams mistake cost them at the end of the first half, it was a big special teams play that helped give them their first lead of the game. Courtney Roby took the opening kick of the second half 61 yards, setting up the Saints on the Minnesota 37-yard line. Brees opened with a 17-yard pass to Jeremy Shockey and three plays later Pierre Thomas capped the drive with a 9-yard touchdown run for a 21-14 Saints lead only 2:04 into the second half.
In a game where score was matched for score, the Vikings answered. They moved across midfield with a 26-yard pass to Visanthe Shiancoe. Peterson fumbled again, but this time Naufahu Tahi recovered after they lost 10. But, once again, Favre found Shiancoe for 20 yards and a first down. Needing another first down, Favre went back to Shiancoe for a 21-yard pass before Peterson scored from 1 yard out to tie the game 21-21.
But the Vikings couldn't hold onto the ball. Peterson lost control but recovered his own fumble. However, seven plays later with the ball in Saints territory, Favre was intercepted by Jonathan Vilma.
The defense held, but Harvin fumbled away the next possession and the Saints recovered, returning it to the Minnesota 7-yard line. On third down, Bush was ruled short of the end zone, but the play was challenged and ruled a touchdown for a 28-21 Saints lead with 12:39 to play in regulation.
The Vikings drove into scoring position with a 27-yard Peterson run and a 30-yard pass to Berrian. But two plays later, Berrian fumbled it away after an 8-yard reception to the 10-yard line.
When the defense held again, the Vikings had another chance to tie the game. Starting with the ball midway through the fourth quarter, Shiancoe converted a third down with a 16-yard reception. Two plays later, Peterson ran for 18 and the Vikings were once again in scoring position. When Tracy Porter interfered with Berrian in the end zone, the Vikings were on the doorstep and Peterson tied the game with a 2-yard run up the middle to make it 28-28 with 4:58 to play.
The defense did the job again and the Favre had his last opportunity. A 10-yard pass to Berrian converted the first third down, and Favre immediately followed that with a 20-yard pass to Rice into Saints territory. Chester Taylor put them in scoring position with a 14-yard run, but the offense just wanted to position the ball for a field goal opportunity. On third-and-10, the Vikings called timeout, which would turn out to haunt them when they had 12 men in the huddle coming out of the timeout and couldn't use back-to-back timeouts. That penalty moved the ball back to the 38-yard line and Favre felt he needed to make a play and forced a throw to Rice that Porter intercepted.
With seven seconds left, the Saints settled for overtime and got the opening possession. They made the most of it when Asher Allen, filling in for an injured Cedric Griffin, was called for defensive holding. With the ball at the Minnesota 43-yard line, the Saints converted fourth-and-1 with a 2-yard dive. New Orleans got another first down by penalty when Ben Leber was flagged for pass interference, moving it to the 29-yard line. Three plays later, Hartley was in position and connected for the biggest field goal in Saints history and the biggest in Vikings history since Gary Anderson missed fourth-quarter kick in the 1998 NFC Championship Game.
It was another cruel end in another season that almost got the Vikings to their first Super Bowl since the 1976 season.
"It was a great season for our team and for the state of Minnesota to be able to look at a team like that compete," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "Among other things, but to look at No. 4 (Favre) compete in purple (was special). I just to prefer to look at the positives."
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