January 24, 2010

SAINTS ARE SUPER BOWL BOUND

The Saints will play one more game this season, and it was earned in one of the most remarkable championship games in league history.

A 31-28 overtime victory has earned the team a trip to Super Bowl XLIV.

The Saints had to overcome a remarkable performance from Vikings QB Brett Favre, who was pounded again and again by Saints defenders and yet made several clutch connections to keep his team in the game.

It was Favre, however, who made his final pass of the season a devastating one for his team. With seconds left and already in field goal position, Favre rolled to his right he threw back across the field, where CB Tracy Porter redeemed earlier mistakes by intercepting the pass and almost breaking free on the return.

The game was full of huge plays, none more important than PK Garrett Hartley's overtime 40-yard field goal connection that won the game and ignited a city. Hartley's kick was perfect - a high arcing kick and right down the middle.

Hartley told the press after the game that he had a dream last night that he would win the game winner from 42 yards out on the right hash mark. He was two yards off. Before the kick, he was rehearsing on the sidelines with Saints' kicking consultant John Carney, who was the Saints' placekicker through November this season.

The Vikings, led by 40-year old Favre, made mistake after mistake. Six fumbles, three of which they recovered despite Saints defenders clawing for the ball. Favre's two interceptions late in the game both resulted in no points but they ended potentially game-winning drives.

A late penalty on the Vikings for 12 men in the huddle moved them back five yards, into long distance field goal range, and changed a safe-play diagnosis to a Favre rollout pass - that Porter intercepted.

The Vikings were aided by some difficult-to-swallow penalties early in the game. The penalty discrepancy, 9 for 88 yards against the Saints and 5 for 32 yards on Minnesota, helped offset a 5-1 turnover victory for New Orleans. It is "uncommon", head coach Sean Payton said, for a team to win by only a field goal - much less in overtime - while winning the turnover in such resounding fashion.

The Saints' one turnover was on Reggie Bush near the end of the second quarter. Bush didn't signal for a fair catch and attempted to the field the ball at his own 10 yard line win a Viking in his face. He muffed the ball and the Vikings recovered at the Saint 10 with 1:13 left in the half and the score tied at 14. But two players later, Favre bungled the exchange with RB Adrian Peterson and Scott Fujita fell on the fumble to preserve a halftime tie.

Fujita's huge play at the second half was perhaps set up by his play on the first snap of the game. Favre threw quick and incomplete to TE Visanthe Shiancoe on the first offensive snap of the game - and was promptly leveled by edge-rushing Fujita. It set the tone for the Saints' defense, who despite not sacking Favre hit him 15 times. He was regularly on his back, though some of those falls might have come with inspiration from Vlade Divac or Manu Ginobli. Favre at one point limped off the field, only to have his left ankle theatrically re-taped in front of the cameras, and return to play minutes later.

Favre's presence drew some favor from the referees as well, when they called a late hit penalty on Saints DE Bobby McCray on a Vikings end-around to WR Percy Harvin. Favre, who appeared to be blocking on the play, was blasted by McCray, who was flagged incorrectly for "hitting a player out of bounds". That flag was one of a few that raised eyebrows, which also included a personal foul on rookie LB Jonathan Casillas, who blasted Vikings PR Darius Reynaud when Reynaud muffed a fair catch punt return.

RB Adrian Peterson exchanged three touchdown runs for being part of three fumbles. Peterson somehow recovered one of those fumbles in a pile of Saints and his fullback Naufahu Tahi recovered another.

RB Reggie Bush also exchanged a key late touchdown for a muffed punt return. Bush's touchdown was another piece of acrobatic skill, catch a dumpoff pass in the right flat and rotating his body 270 degrees as he was being blasted by S Tyrell Johnson to hold the ball over the pylon. The play, initially ruled out of bounds inches short of the end zone, was challenged by Payton almost immediately and overturned to a touchdown. Bush didn't play a big part in today's game, with only nine touches and his three punt return opportunities bottled up.

Of Bush's 41 total yards from scrimmage, 28 came on a key 3rd and 10 conversion that kept the Saints' second touchdown drive alive. QB Drew Brees found Bush open, scraping across the middle of the field and Bush finished the play by turning and blasting his weight into Vikings S Madieu Williams, who was bowled flat.

Like many players on the Saints, Bush was bottled up today. The Saints won despite only 257 offensive yards to the Vikings' 475. Brees' 197 yards passing was the lowest output of his five career playoff games.

Rookie punter Thomas Morstead helped keep the Saints offense in the game with his second straight enormous playoff performance. The fifth round pick from SMU put on a punting clinic that consistently kept the Vikings' punt returners quiet and their starting field position back in their own territory. Morstead dropped four of his seven punts inside the 20 and averaged 51.3 yards per kick, including a 63-yard moon shot that Reynauld fielded at his own one yard line but returned to his own 10, the longest punt return of the night.

Youthful, inexperienced kicking specialists Morstead and Hartley were huge parts of tonight's game.

Meanwhile, the Vikings defense played as well as it was billed to be. Brees overthrew more than one open receiver and was not sharp especially on some key late throws that could have won the game in regulation. Two key throws to WR Marques Colston over the middle were shaky to Colston, who in traffic got both hands up but couldn't catch them cleanly. Brees completed only two of seven passes in overtime.

The Saints' won the overtime toss and got the ball at their own 39 thanks to a big return by Pierre Thomas, filling in for an injured Courtney Roby, who also had a big return to start the third quarter that set up the Saints' third touchdown. Brees missed his first three passes, though the first drew a defensive holding penalty that resulted in a first down. On third and 10, Brees hit WR Devery Henderson just short of the first down marker to set up a fourth and inches leap by Pierre Thomas. Booth reviews were initiated on both those plays.

Brees' next incompletion drew a defensive pass interference call when LB Ben Leber pushed down TE David Thomas on a pass that might have been ruled uncatchable had it not landed in bounds at the Vikings 23. Brees then hit WR Robert Meachem for 12 yards to the Vikings 22 on 2nd and 15, after Bush was dropped on a toss right for a loss. On third and three, Brees was hurried out of the pocket and threw to David Thomas' feet to set up Hartley's game winning field goal from 40 yards out.

It certainly wasn't Brees' best day, and he didn't match up to 40-yard old Brett Favre. The Saints' line held up to pressure from DE Jared Allen with left tackle Jermon Bushrod holding him in check, and Brees was harried throughout the night though rarely hit. Brees' biggest gaffe was blowing the center-quarterback exchange with 8:26 left in regulation. It killed a drive on 3rd and 1, coming off Jonathan Vilma's recovery of Bernard Berrian's fumble, Minnesota's sixth. The Saints desperately needed to gain field position and give their beleaguered defense a break but Brees dropped the snap, picked it up and somehow dove ahead for what would be replay ruled inches short of first down yardage. But the Saints had to punt because of that failed third down conversion, and eight plays later the Vikings tied the game at 28.

That was just part of a miserable second half for the Saints offense. In the second half, Saints drive in the second half was more than four plays, and they gained only one first down, though two resulted in touchdowns.

With only 4:58 left and the scored tied, the Saints' next drive was also a three and out after DE Ray Edwards knocked the ball out of Brees' grasp on first down and Jahri Evans' recovered the fumble for an eight yard loss. The Saints' defense, courtesy of Tracy Porter, bailed the offense out again and set them up with seven seconds left near midfield. But Brees' two passes at the end of regulation were well defended by the Vikings, the first batted down at the line. Sum total was 10 fourth quarter plays for the Saints, 17 yards, no first downs and two punts. That fourth quarter swoon nearly cost the Saints the game, only to be saved by the defense forcing three Vikings turnovers in the final 14:21.

CB Tracy Porter missed multiple tackles, poorly played a deep pass to the end zone that threw pass interference. But he made up for it with two huge plays. Porter punched the ball free from WR Bernard Berrian after a pass inside the Saint 10 yard line, which Vilma recovered. Then, on the Vikings' final drive and on Favre's final pass of the season, Porter nearly won the game with his late interception on an ill-advised pass. The Port Allen, Louisiana native returned the pass 26 yards to mid-field before C John Sullivan tackled him and prevented a would be game-winning touchdown return.

Vilma's huge night was highlighted by his late third quarter interception of Favre's pass over the middle. Big credit to Vilma for holding on to that ball despite being blasted by a crossing Fujita. Two Vikings possessions later, Vilma recovered Berrian's fumble at his own five yard line to end another Vikings drive.

Overall, the Saints' defense was stellar. In the final 31:13, the Saints allowed two touchdowns but ended five different Vikings drives with three fumble recoveries and two interceptions. That doesn't include three other fumbles that the Saints' fought for but didn't recover. A big break came for the Saints on the second play of the fourth quarter when DE Will Smith punched the ball free from rookie WR Percy Harvin and after a host of players dove for it, huge but nimble Saints DT Remi Ayodele picked the ball up cleanly and rumbled for five yards to the Vikings 7 yard line.

It was just one of many huge, huge plays by the Saints' defense, which carried the day when the offense couldn't.

Scoring recap:

  • The Vikings moved methodically in 10 plays covering 80 yards, the final 19 rumbled in by Peterson, who caught the Saints' losing containment on the right side of the defense.

  • The Saints' responded with a seven play, 76 yard drive capped by a beautifully-executed screen pass to Pierre Thomas, who as he has done so many times, rumbled down the right sideline with help from countless downfield blockers. Thomas finally cut inside and spiked the ball in the end zone for the tying score from 38 yards out.

  • The Vikings moved downfield again, with Favre weathering a storm of hard hits. The Saints' defense was called for three penalties that granted two first downs and 25 yards. Favre fired a rocket to Sidney Rice at the front of the end zone for the score from five yards out.

  • The teams exchanged punts and the Saints' tied the score at 14 when Brees drifted back and hit a leaping Devery Henderson in the back of the end zone from nine yards out. Probably Brees' best pass of the night as his accuracy and effectiveness deteriorated.

  • The Saints' opened second half scoring with a four play drive the started at the Viking 37 thanks to Courtney Roby's return. Brees hit TE David Thomas for 17 and then three straight runs by Pierre Thomas finally resulted in his nine yard scoring plunge.

  • The Vikings came right back and responded with a nine play, 80-yard drive where Favre hit Shiancoe for big gains of 26, 20 and 21 yards to set up Peterson's one-yard plunge to tie the game at 21.

  • Two Saint punts and two Viking turnovers later, the Saints cashed in on a three-play, seven yard drive on a short pass to Reggie Bush, who twisted into the end zone.

  • Favre moved the Vikings from their own 43 for the tying touchdown, set up by a pass interference call on CB Tracy Porter in the end zone. Peterson punched it in from two yards out.

  • The Saints' took the opening possession of overtime into field goal range for Hartley, who nailed it from 40 yards out. The FOX network had just shown a replay of Hartley missing a game-clinching field goal in Week 16.
Notes:

CB Tracy Porter's rollercoaster night also saw him miss some snaps with a minor undescribed injury... CB Randall Gay gave up some big completions and also left the game temporarily for the locker room at one point with an unspecified injury... WR Courtney Roby left the game late with an ankle injury, and RB Pierre Thomas had to replace him on kickoff returns (with great results)...

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