Another weekly column, Flashback Friday will focus on key players, plays, teams and games from the past that are worth a second (or two hundredth) look. Enjoy!
This week, we turn our attention on the 2009-2010 postseason, and the NFC Championship game in particular. But before we get to that, we need to have a closer look at one of the participants, and the season they had put together.
Favre Works Magic In Hated Minnesota
The circumstances that led Brett Favre, a lifelong Packer and one-year Jet who was set to retire after the Jets absolutely folded in the 2nd half of a promising 2008 season, to Minnesota are commonly believed to circle around his desire to show up the team that chose Aaron Rodgers over him. That year, the Packers lost the NFC Championship game due in large part to an untimely, ill-advised interception thrown by Favre, who would end up retiring as the all-time leader in the category (and just about every other career passing category, as well). I grew up as a huge fan of Favre and his style of play. There simply wasn’t another ‘gunslinger’ type of quarterback in the NFL, at least not one as successful and fun as Favre was. My uncle, who is the main reason I’m a football fan today, is a lifelong Vikings fan, and you can imagine his personal feelings towards #4. After Favre stepped back from the precipice of retirement and donned the purple and gold, nobody really knew what to think beyond “he just wants to prove the Packers wrong”.
Well, he proved them wrong, and quite a few other teams along the way.
The only other significant addition to the team can in the draft, when they took Percy Harvin 22nd overall. Harvin was a pivotal part of the 2009 Vikings, flashing skills as a receiver, runner and kick returner, and ending up as the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Minnesota was coming off of a 10-6 record and divisional title the year before, riding the powerful legs of Adrian Peterson and a top-notch defense into the playoffs. It’s not like the additions of Favre and Harvin propelled the team from bottom feeders to contenders, but they were additions that made the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl championship seem more and more likely as the season progressed.
The Vikings didn’t lose a game until October 25th. Offensively, the team had their way with everyone they faced, scoring no less than 27 points in each victory. Some ended with scores that made the games look less one-sided than they really were. During this stretch, Favre got his first taste at personal redemption as he led the team to a 30-23 win over the Packers. Immediately following their tough 27-17 loss to Pittsburgh, the Vikings marched onto Lambeau field and dominated the Pack to the tune of 38-26. It was right around this point, sitting at 7-1, when everyone truly started to take notice. Brett Favre was doing something ridiculously unpredictable, on pace to have his best season statistically in his NFL career.
The team finished the season with a 12-4 record, dominating division rivals Detroit and Chicago along the way, and beating out Green Bay by one game (and a sweep that would have given them the tiebreaker, anyway) and looked forward to a first week bye in the postseason. Remembering back, amongst all the teams in the NFC that made it that far, the Vikings were definitely favorites to go all the way. Any talk of New Orleans was focused on the inspiring and uplifting play of a team whose city was decimated by Hurricane Katrina. They were the top seed in the NFC, but when you looked at the two teams, Minnesota was obviously the more balanced and experienced of the two.
There were more than a few magic moments during the course of that 2009 season, Favre working some late magic and building instant chemistry with out-of-nowhere sensation Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. It certainly didn’t hurt that Adrian Peterson had himself another excellent season, or that the defense sent 3 players to the Pro Bowl. Special teamer Heath Farwell was also a Pro Bowl pick that year, reflecting that balance I mentioned earlier. Favre ended the regular season with a stat line that still blows my mind: 4,202 yards, 33 TDs, 7 picks (a career-low), a 68.4 completion percentage (a career-high) and an overall QB rating of 107.2, shattering his previous high of 99.5 he put up in 1995. The team also sent Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson to Hawaii that year.
Needless to say, postseason hopes were high. A little too high, according to many, when a Cowboys team who were riding an on-fire Tony Romo came calling. So many people were giving an edge to the Cowboys that it seemed to add fuel to Minnesota’s fire, and the Vikings manhandled Dallas 34-3. Favre threw four TDs, three of them to Sidney Rice, and the defense left absolutely nothing on the field in dominating the overhyped Romo and the rest of his offense.
Every single person who doubted Minnesota was suddenly quieted, left to contemplate what could possibly stand in the way of them and their first Super Bowl appearance since 1976.
What stood between them was the New Orleans Saints, a referee crew with their heads up their asses, and one of the most unforgettable games I ever watched.
2009 NFC Championship – Did They Beat Themselves, Or Did They Ever Have A Chance?
It was a back-and-forth game for four quarters, with lead changes galore and the Vikings defense turning the tide on those five turnovers often enough to keep them in it. What I seem to recall, more than anything else, were a handful of absolutely ridiculous calls in the 4th quarter, calls that went against both team but in the end favored New Orleans. Saints fans don’t want to hear it, but anyone who watched that game knew that is was Minnesota’s to win all the way up to Favre’s terrible interception that forced overtime. Ultimately, he was to blame, as he was in his last year in Green Bay, for his team missing the Super Bowl, but everything that led up to that pick was just…
In the end, I honestly believe the refs cost the Vikings the game, despite the turnovers and despite New Orleans’ offensive firepower. Another thing to keep in mind? This game was the deciding factor on the NFL adjusting their overtime rules that now state that the team who scores first must score a touchdown in order to take the victory. A field goal in that situation only gives the opposing offense one last chance to either tie or take the win with a touchdown themselves. You think there wasn’t any guilt in that decision? Maybe the league acknowledging that their own negligence, more than any other factor, cost Minnesota a Superbowl appearance?
Another obvious point to be made regards the infamous Bountygate scandal, which tied into the way Saints defensive players clearly attempted to knock Favre out of the game with cheap shots, low blows and late hits. Many of these simply weren’t flagged, and in retrospect, the NFL has to be absolutely ashamed of themselves for that. Gregg Williams wanted Favre out of that game, managed to hurt him and that injury just may have been a key factor in the last interception of his postseason career. Or maybe not. Either way, those missed calls, and that sort of dirty play from New Orleans, were ultimately factors in the final score.
The Saints would go on to beat the Colts in Superbowl XLIV, dominating Peyton Manning and co. 35-17 and bringing a championship to a city that definitely needed it and deserved it. But if you’re looking at it from an unbiased perspective, you cannot tell me the Vikings weren’t robbed from playing in that game. This is pure speculation, but something tells me Minnesota takes Indianapolis in a closer Superbowl, giving them their first as a franchise in what would have been their 5th appearance.
All The Circumstances, All The Hoopla, All For Naught
In the end, the Vikings could have won that game despite everything. They didn’t, and Vikings fans and NFL fans alike are left to wonder, “what if?”. But I’ve watched every playoff game for over a decade now, and I cannot recall a game that was ever more clearly decided by poor officiating than the 2009 NFC Championship game. That isn’t an excuse: it’s a fact. New Orleans should hold their title high, and always do so, but for the actions of a handful of defensive players and Gregg Williams in particular, there should be endless shame on each of them for the way they conducted themselves. The shame also should be shared by the NFL, whose officiating and one-year-too-late overtime rule change made all the difference.
What happens if that rule was in effect after the Saints hit that field goal? Does Favre work his magic and lead a touchdown drive to remember, or does he throw yet another interception? Does Peterson throw the team on his back, as is his specialty, and will them to victory? Or does he cough the rock up once again? We’ll never know. There’s so much we’ll never know as a result of that championship game.
The Saints played a great game. The Vikings did themselves no favors, but ultimately were robbed. The NFL owes Minnesota, their fans, and everyone who isn’t a Saints fan blinded by their fandom, a sincere apology.