There was Ali-Frazier. Hulk Hogan-Andre the Giant. The Coke-Pepsi taste test. The status of the most highly anticipated competitive matchups in American history will be threatened this weekend in the NFC Championship Game, which will feature the two teams that spent most of this season jockeying for conference supremacy. Minnesota-New Orleans should be so good, why, it’ll be better than “Cats.”
ESPN.com bloggers Pat Yasinskas (NFC South) and Kevin Seifert (NFC North) broke down the matchup during an orderly phone call this week. We kept it professional, although we occasionally screamed at each other to practice communicating in what we expect will be ear-splitting noise Sunday at the Superdome.
Kevin Seifert: PAT, IT WAS SOMEWHERE AROUND THE ... oh, sorry, I’ll stop yelling. It was somewhere around the third week of September when we realized Minnesota had the potential to be a special team this season. And yet at every point along the way, it seemed the Saints were one step ahead. The Saints were 13-0 at one point and absorbed the conference limelight.
The Vikings had plenty of big games on their schedule, but after they essentially clinched the NFC North in November by completing a season sweep of Green Bay, their eyes privately turned south. I think they knew their path to the Super Bowl would have to go through the Saints, and they’ve been thinking about them ever since. Coach Brad Childress even admitted to watching a few games out of “admiration” for the way Saints coach Sean Payton runs his offense.
Be it admiration or early game planning, this matchup has been on the horizon here for a long time. How about in New Orleans?
Pat Yasinskas: Absolutely. The Saints have kept an eye on the Vikings all season. They were very conscious of everything Minnesota did, because they wanted the home-field advantage in the playoffs and recognized the advantage of playing the NFC Championship Game at the Superdome.
I think they also realize how important hosting this game is to the city of New Orleans. They’ve waited a long time for this game to come.
KS: Indeed, they’ve waited forever. This is the first time the Saints have ever hosted an NFC Championship Game. Their history is long, sordid and not worth recounting here. We could always ask Brett Favre to do it, though.
The Vikings quarterback grew up a Saints fan in nearby Mississippi. He claims he never wore a bag on his head, but more than any player currently in the NFL, Favre knows how far the Saints have come. He also had one of his greatest NFL moments in New Orleans, winning the Super Bowl in January of 1997.
He’ll arrive at the Superdome playing arguably the best football of his career. Counting the playoffs, Favre has thrown 37 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. Over his last nine quarters, dating back to halftime of the Vikings’ Dec. 28 game at Chicago, Favre has a 140.4 passer rating.
So what do you think, Pat: How do people in New Orleans regard Favre?
PY: Favre is a local hero for the entire Gulf Region. He’s on par with Peyton Manning, a New Orleans native, Deuce McAllister and Drew Brees. But Favre obviously will not be the local favorite for this game. He won’t even be the most-popular quarterback, not by a long shot.
That title belongs to Brees, who could be mayor of New Orleans and governor of Louisiana if he wanted to be.
KS: We’ll get to Brees in a moment. But let’s continue down the Favre path. Of all the things he’s done this season, perhaps the most amazing is something he hasn’t: make mistakes. Favre’s seven interceptions this season were by far a career low, and I think some Green Bay fans want to check his identification to make sure he’s the same quarterback who occasionally tortured them with some inane throws over the years.
On Sunday, however, he’ll be facing a defender who knows him as well as any active player in the NFL. Saints safety Darren Sharper was a Packers teammate from 1997-2004, and has never been shy about expressing how much he likes to play against him. Sharper has always believed he could induce Favre into making one of his patented bonehead throws.
So Pat, what’s Sharper’s mindset heading into this game -- one that just so happens to come against one of his former teams as well?
PY: Darren Sharper has been talking excitedly about the possibility of this matchup since early this season. It seems like it’s his dream to show the Vikings that he still has something left. He knows Brett Favre better than anyone, and Gregg Williams -- the Saints’ defensive coordinator -- is well aware of that.
Williams will try to let Sharper play his kind of game. Sharper was dominant early this season when he was allowed to be a center fielder. When the Saints had some midseason injuries at cornerback, he had to play more Cover 2 and wasn’t coming up with turnovers as frequently.
Last week against Arizona, however, the Saints’ cornerbacks were healthy and he was allowed to do what he does best.
KS: Interesting point about Gregg Williams, Pat. I don’t know if many people remember or realize that Williams was high on the Vikings’ list when they opened the coaching search that ultimately led them to hire Childress in 2006.
At the time, Williams was Washington’s highly successful defensive coordinator. The Redskins ended up giving him a raise and a chance to succeed Joe Gibbs whenever the legendary coach stepped down. That was enough for Williams to remove himself from consideration before an interview took place.
The Vikings and the rest of the NFL have watched Williams make dramatic improvements to the Saints' defense. Pat, you’ve seen the Saints a bunch this season. As well as the Saints' defense played, are there any holes? If so, where are they? Inquiring minds want to know.
PY: It hasn’t been a perfect defense. It started off very well and then it hit a long lull in midseason until the end of the season. Basically, injuries played a big role in that.
But even when healthy, there are concerns about stopping the running game and getting pressure up front. Neither has been a strength for the Saints. The strength of this defense is its aggressiveness and ability to come up with turnovers, but it does allow some big plays and that could work to the Vikings' advantage.
KS: That will be an interesting dynamic. Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson hasn’t had a 100-yard game since mid-November, and over that time, the team has morphed into a pass-first offense. I think recent opponents have erred by prioritizing Peterson over stopping the Vikings’ passing game, but it will be interesting to see how Williams and the Saints approach it.
Placing too much attention on Favre leaves too much single coverage in the passing game. You saw how Favre capitalized on that with Sidney Rice last week against Dallas. If Favre gets enough time to throw -- and that’s always a big if’ -- the Vikings have too many skill players to keep track of in the secondary.
On the other hand, the Vikings got premium pressure on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, sacking him six times last weekend. Romo committed three turnovers and looked jittery the whole game. Pat, how would Brees react to similar pressure?
PY: Brees handles pressure as well as any quarterback. But pressure can still impact him and cause mistakes. The Saints are very concerned about Minnesota’s pass rush.
Bushrod has done a decent job, but at times he has been exploited. He needs a tight end or a fullback helping him out on just about every passing down. And you can expect that Sean Payton will make sure that Bushrod won’t find himself in any one-on-one blocking schemes.
KS: If he does, Pat, I think Jared Allen would have a field day. Earlier this season, I was shocked at how many teams tried to block him with one player. It rarely works.
Pat, great to talk to you. As we said at the beginning, this figures to be one of the best matchups of the playoffs -- if not in all-time American sports. SEE YOU AT THE SUPERDOME!!!!