Breaking down the NFC Championship Game, Vikings at Saints, Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, FOX
1. There is history everywhere you look in this matchup. The Saints are 43 years old and Super Bowl virgins. The Vikings have been trying to get back to the game's grandest stage for the past 33 years, since becoming the league's first 0-4 Super Bowl team in January 1977. One of them will have their quest fulfilled late Sunday night in the Superdome, and that makes this year's NFC title game special all by itself.
But there's more. Much, much more. Such as:
• Brett Favre returning to the scene of his career's greatest triumph -- a Super Bowl XXXI win over New England with the Packers -- to become the oldest quarterback to start a conference title game, at 40 years and 106 days young. Last Sunday against Dallas, he became the oldest QB to win a playoff game.
• Favre and Saints quarterback Drew Brees joining forces to give us the first conference championship game to feature a pair of passers who threw for 4,000-plus yards, 30-plus touchdowns, with a QB rating of 100-plus.
• Having the two top-scoring offenses in the league this year on the same field, with New Orleans (510 points) versus Minnesota (470) being the first conference final to manage that since San Francisco beat Dallas in the 1994 NFC title game.
• It's also tied for the winningest matchup we've had in an NFC Championship since 1998, when Minnesota and Atlanta met with a combined regular-season record of 29-3. The top-seeded Saints and the No. 2-seeded Vikings went 25-7 this season, starting 13-0 and 10-1, respectively.
2. The Brett Favre versus Darren Sharper showdown should make for a fascinating sub-plot. The most amazing statistic of all compiled by Favre in his season of amazing statistics is his career-low seven interceptions compared to 37 touchdown passes (including the playoffs). That's not the gunslingin' Favre we've come to know and love over the years. Where are all those forehead-slapping throws into triple coverage?
But if anybody might be able to coax the old risk-taking Favre back on stage, it might be the Saints' Sharper, his former Green Bay teammate from 1997 to 2004. Sharper spent years practicing against No. 4, and he knows his tendencies as well as any other defensive back in the NFL. And Sharper, 34, has enjoyed something of a career renaissance himself this season, in his first year as the Saints free safety. His nine interceptions tied for the NFL lead, and he returned three for touchdowns. New Orleans first-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams let Sharper roam centerfield for the most part, helping remake the image of the Saints defense into an aggressive, takeaway-producing unit that led the league with eight defensive touchdowns.
And don't forget, Sharper has more motivation in this game than just wanting to play well against Favre and earn the second Super Bowl trip of his 13-year career. He has something to prove to Vikings head coach Brad Childress, who let him walk away last offseason after four years of service in Minnesota's secondary. On Sunday, Sharper will be hoping revenge is best served indoors.
3. The skill players are top-notch in this game, but the big guys might decide matters. The Vikings defensive line demolished Dallas last week, sacking Tony Romo a team-playoff-record six times and harassing him on at least a dozen other plays. Defensive ends Ray Edwards and Jared Allen are a handful on the edge, and the Williams Wall inside (Kevin Williams, Pat Williams) is the guts of a run defense that has ranked either first or second in the league for the past four seasons. And did we mention that Minnesota led the NFL in sacks this season, with 48?
But the Saints offensive line was one of the best in the NFL this season, and if it gives Brees time to operate against Minnesota, the Vikings defense could be in trouble. Yes, third-year offensive left tackle Jermon Bushrod struggled some down the stretch, especially against Dallas pass rusher DeMarcus Ware in Week 15. But guard Jahri Evans, center Jonathan Goodwin and right tackle Jon Stinchcomb all made the Pro Bowl and led a Saints offensive line that allowed Brees to be sacked just 20 times in the regular season, and kept him clean last week against Arizona.
While everyone's watching Favre, Brees and all those great receivers and running backs the Vikings and Saints can run out there, don't lose track of the elephants dance up front. Their tug of war might just decide who heads to Miami.
A veteran personnel man from a team that played Minnesota this season assesses Brett Favre's wildly successful first year as a Viking:
"I think the fact that he has a running game has been very important for him. He's not forcing the ball and taking a lot of chances, because he knows he has other players around him, both in the running game and on defense. I think that Brad Childress and Darrell Bevell knew him and stressed taking care of the ball, and not turning it over can't be underestimated with him. That's so important, as is that he really did go back into an offense that he knows so well. He's the last piece of the puzzle for Minnesota, not the only piece.
"The day we faced him, I was amazed by him at times. His ability to look off our safeties was unbelievable. Even more than his throws, it was his mechanics of delivering the football. The throws were great, but it was just as important how he sets up the throw. He'd look one way the entire time, and at the last second turn to the other side of the field and fire an absolute laser. A lot of guys can't do that, but he can, because he knows where he's going to go with the ball every second. That's what sets him apart. Not the throw as much as the process before the throw.''
Though there were pretenders to the throne along the way -- the Giants early in the season, the Cardinals, Eagles and Cowboys later on -- the Saints and Vikings have been the pace-setters from Week 1 in the NFC. And now they meet in the glamour matchup that promises an explosion of offense and a solid wall of noise emanating from the boisterous Superdome crowd.
The Saints' will to win for the city of New Orleans may sound trite to some, but I believe it's part of the mojo that has driven Sean Payton's team all season. This is a franchise that has known more than its share of heartache and underachievement, but this time, the Saints won't disappoint. Prepare yourself New Orleans. The biggest party ever in this party town is about to begin: Saints 27, Vikings 24.