— We’ve got the NFC Championship we expected in October, even if we didn’t expect it last week.
The Vikings and Saints didn’t just win their Divisional Round games; they demolished quality opponents by a combined score of 79-17. Brett Favre’s final touchdown toss to Visanthe Shiancoe late in Sunday’s game rubbed some folks the wrong way, but it was a fitting capper to the NFC weekend.
This wasn’t about mercy; it was about two old fashioned, 31-point whuppings. It was about two teams, 21-1 after Week 12, reasserting their dominance. The Cowboys have all offseason to complain about sportsmanship. The Vikings have an NFC title game to prepare for. It should be a doozy.
Brett Favre and Drew Brees were two of the best four quarterbacks this season, so it’s only fair they face off to go to the Super Bowl. The two men are playing at their peaks, but are at very different points of their career.
Favre is accomplishing things no 40-year-old ever has before. He has nothing left to prove, but he also hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since John Elway helicoptered the Broncos to an upset victory. That was 13 years ago.
Back then, America loved Favre unconditionally. He was a trip to listen to, and more importantly, to watch. The playing style never stopped being entertaining, but our feelings toward Favre changed sometime around the second retirement.
Forget all the drama for a moment, and focus on the football. Favre was at his best Sunday against a Cowboys defense that made life more difficult than the score indicated. Favre’s first touchdown toss to Sidney Rice fit into a window that wasn’t there. (Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh still may not know that Rice caught the pass.)
The second score, also to Rice, was an improvisational thing of beauty by the wide receiver and quarterback. Rice threw a cut block, saw Favre looking for someone, dusted himself off the turf, and raced to a 16-yard score. Tony Romo is supposed to be the great new improviser, but he couldn’t escape Minnesota’s pass rush.
Favre has been around too long to try any longer. He knows when to get rid of the ball, take a hit, and get up for the next play. It’s a different style, but it’s one that has resulted in the best stats of Favre’s career. And now it’s helped put him two wins away from the ultimate storybook ending.
Brees is just starting to author his legacy. At 31, however, Brees knows that opportunities like this don’t come around often. In nine NFL seasons, Brees has played in four Pro Bowls. But he only had one playoff win before his surgical performance against Arizona.
He doesn’t need to prove anything more about his talent; he needs to get the Saints to their first Super Bowl. Brees already handed New Orleans a great gift: a weeklong party before the first home NFC Championship game in team history.
Only three seasons ago, Brees led the Saints further than they’d ever gone before. That team appeared grateful to make it that far. It was Brees’ first season in New Orleans, and the team’s first year back home after their nomadic season following Hurricane Katrina. That worst-to-first campaign was supposed to be the start of something special, but the Saints didn’t finish over .500 the next two years.
Brees and the Saints were just learning the nooks and crannies of Sean Payton’s offense back then. And while they didn’t win in 2007-2008, the Saints built an offense that knows how to score. New Orleans has the best guard combination in football (Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks) and enviable continuity throughout the offense.
The running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and even the tackles are replaceable parts in a complex machine. Brees is the engine that makes it go.
The Vikings get overlooked when people discuss the most painful teams to root for. 0-4 in the Super Bowl, they haven’t been back since 1976. Minnesota has lost in three NFC title games since, but none compare to the pain of 1998 and Gary Anderson’s miss against the Falcons. Those Vikings were 16-1 entering the game; this Favre-led group is the best team they’ve had since.
Vikings fans may be the most fatalistic group in the league, refusing to get their hopes up. Any success is treated with suspicion. In the days leading up to the Dallas game, I didn’t hear one Vikings fan that thought they’d win.
It will be tough not to go all in emotionally now. Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, Jared Allen, and Ray Edwards are conjuring memories of the Purple People Eaters. Tony Romo didn’t have a chance against them. Cheering for Favre may have felt like a deal with the devil at first, but the strangeness has washed away. (Except for that postgame “pants on the ground” cheer.)
The Favre gambit was always wrought with the tension of impermanence. With no sure tomorrow, it’s Super Bowl or bust.
The same is true for the Saints, clearly the best team in franchise history. It’s the team Saints fans have waited for since 1967.
The connection between the Saints and New Orleans is strong, but it didn’t start after Hurricane Katrina. This was a football-mad area that had low expectations for their pro team that were rarely met. It was unrequited love.
It didn’t take long to realize this 2009 team was special. A tradition of waiting for the team to return from away games turned into a full scale bi-monthly parade — at 2 A.M. There is a small town feel to this big time NFL football team.
In a time when athletes and its fans are more disconnected than ever, the Saints are part of the city they live in. They have no choice. Offensive linemen get standing ovations when they go out to dinner. Deuce McAllister’s return is announced over loudspeakers in retail stores. Drew Brees is revered as an almost-religious-like leader. (And there are “What would Breesus do?” T-shirts to prove it.)
For all those reasons, this Sunday will feel like the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
Now or Never
The NFL isn’t about natural progressions. It’s about right now.
Last season’s final four teams thought they were building something, and none of them made it back. The four teams that earned a bye in 2008 didn’t even make the playoffs. Our final quartet — New Orleans, Minnesota, New York Jets, and Indianapolis — had combined for zero playoff wins the last two years.
The Saints and Vikings were the dominant NFC teams all season in a top-heavy year. They validated their regular seasons with Divisional Round blowouts. And both organizations know nothing is guaranteed in the future.
This season, this Sunday, is all that matters. We can’t wait.