Line still feeling sting of loss

The offensive line is being forced to watch film of the NFC Championship Game loss to the Saints, reliving a painful memory. Different players have already seen the tape to varying degrees, but they are trying to keep their responsibilities in check.

As part of their preparation for Thursday's regular-season opener, the Vikings have had to do something they've dreaded for eight months – watch the game film of their loss to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game.

Some players have refused to watch the film since the game. Others have admitted they just turned it off in the third quarter out of disgust. Still others have watched it over and over again in some masochistic wish that, if they watch it enough, the outcome will change.

The enduring image of that game is a beaten and battered Brett Favre taking shot after shot – many of them viewed by Vikings coach Brad Childress as being unnecessary late hits and cheap shots.

For those on the offensive line assigned to protect Favre from such an ungodly beat-down, watching that game film has been especially painful. Because of their job and their line of sight during plays, seeing those shots on film for some of them was the first time they had actually witnessed what the world saw in January.

Anthony Herrera and Phil Loadholt were on the right side of the offensive line that night and they're back for revenge a little more than seven months later. They've tried to move on and let go of the pain that resulted from that game, but both of them have found it difficult.

"I'm still not over it," Herrera said. "I don't think I'll ever be over that. You get so close to (the Super Bowl) – you can touch it, you can taste it, you can smell it and, all of the sudden, somebody takes it away. That's your lifelong dream, so I don't think I'll ever be over that. But that's football. You have to rebound, head down there and handle our business."

While Herrera had been around for the building process of the Vikings, like Favre, Loadholt was in his first season in purple in 2009 as a rookie right tackle. It seemed pretty easy when the Vikings jumped out to a 10-1 record. Players go entire careers without getting a chance to play in the Super Bowl and Loadholt was within a whisker of getting there in his rookie season. His reaction was different, but no less pained.

"You never really get over something like that," Loadholt said. "For me being a rookie, to get that far only to have it slip away from you, it's something that has been eating at everybody ever since."

It wasn't so much that the Vikings lost the game, but how they lost it. The domination of the Saints in the second half of that game was absurd. The Vikings gained 300 yards of offense in the second half alone. The Saints gained just 90 and were 2 of 15 on third-down conversion attempts. It was a lopsided beating that was neutralized by uncharacteristic turnovers that had eluded the Vikings offense all season.

In the players' minds, it may have been easier to accept knowing that the Saints had their number and had beaten them down 31-7 as opposed to 31-28 in a game where the Vikings not only turned over the ball, but did it in both red zones – denying themselves points and handing the Saints some easy ones.

"Situations like that come around once in a lifetime and you have to take advantage of that," Herrera said. "It would have been a whole lot easier if they beat us. But when the stats show that you got more yardage than them, you outplayed them except for turnovers and you know that killed yourself, that's a hard pill to swallow."

Loadholt said that the blocking schemes will be designed to take away the opportunities so prevalent in the last meeting, chances for defenders to get running shots at Favre. By design, football is a violent game and big hits always make the highlight films. Brad Childress defended his offensive line, pointing to the fact that the Saints often brought more pass-rushers than the Vikings could account for and Favre was only sacked three times while the offense gained 475 yards.

"I really thought that if you looked at our offensive line, they played decently against New Orleans. The fact is, when you zero blitz, when you hit guys that are coming off the side on a naked and there is nobody to block that guy, you're going to leave a guy free. A free safety blitz is going to come free. There's not a hat for him. Count the numbers, there's just not a hat for him. I thought our offensive line played pretty well. They'll be motivated."

Childress did say that the offensive line was "in progress," like the entire offense.

Although all of the hits Favre absorbed were not the fault of the linemen, Loadholt knows they bear the responsibility in the public's eye, since they're charged with protecting their 40-year-old QB from getting hit, much less taking a beating that, if it had happened outside the Superdome, people would have been arrested.

"It's part of the game," Loadholt said. "Everybody points to the offensive line as the reason Brett took some of those shots, but it was the entire offense as a whole. We aren't going to change a lot of things that we do to protect Brett from getting hit. That's our job every game – to keep him clean. All we have to do is a better job of executing and I think you're going to see that Thursday."

The linemen have no doubts that the Saints will try a similar tactic to attacking Favre – if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If it worked before, chances are they will try it again. But the linemen that can't shake the memory of that game haven't forgotten what the Saints defenders did to their leader.

"That's up to them," Herrera said when asked if he expected to see much of the same from the Saints Thursday. "Everybody knew we had a lot of late hits on the quarterback that weren't called. You're playing football and it is what it is."

Publicly, the Vikings are maintaining a unified front – Thursday's game counts just as much as Week 2, Week 9 or Week 14. However, like Favre's indecision about returning for another season, few people believe that the Vikings will have the same level of intensity heading into New Orleans as they did last year heading into Cleveland. It's only one game, but it will have playoff intensity and the eyes of the football world watching. It's hard not to get a little extra adrenaline going in that situation and, despite public comments, Thursday's game will have more significance than most on the 2010 schedule.

"We look at it as one of 16 games, but it won't be easy," Loadholt said. "Not only is it against the team that kept us out of the Super Bowl, but it's the first game of this season and we want to get out to a strong start. We don't want them to get shots at Brett like they did the last time and we're focused on keeping them out and dictating what we want to do. It's only 1-16th of our season, but there's no doubt it's going to be a big game."


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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