Favre the human shock absorber
When it mattered most, Saints' defense made difference against QB, Vikings
Originally Published: January 24, 2010By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)Saints defenders Scott Fujita (55) and Anthony Hargrove were among those making it a long night for Vikings QB Brett Favre.NEW ORLEANS -- In these parts, they refer to it as lagniappe, a Creole word that, roughly translated, means "a little something extra." On Sunday in the Superdome, the underappreciated New Orleans Saints defense provided a dose of lagniappe to this long-suffering franchise. The Saints' defenders compensated for a sometimes conservative New Orleans offense in a 31-28 overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. "We just weren't going to lose, no matter how much we had to do," said cornerback Tracy Porter, whose interception of Brett Favre with seven seconds remaining in regulation killed a Minnesota drive that had reached the Saints' 38-yard line. "We said to ourselves, 'OK, it's on us, right?' We just felt like somebody would step up and that someone just happened to be me." The Saints earned the first Super Bowl berth in franchise history courtesy of Garrett Hartley's 40-yard field goal nearly five minutes into the extra period. Hartley's game winner sent the 71,276 fans dancing onto Bourbon Street. But the Saints' defense was the difference maker. After surrendering touchdowns on Minnesota's opening two possessions, coordinator Gregg Williams' unit settled in and began pounding away at Favre and the Vikings. It crowded the line of scrimmage, blitzed on every passing-situation play and it took the ball away, netting five turnovers. Favre was not sacked, but the Saints' rush hit him plenty and forced him to unload some throws before he could set his feet. Not surprisingly, the Porter interception and 26-yard return came on a third-and-15 play on which the Saints brought inside pressure. The rush forced Favre to roll to his right and he threw across his body into Porter's hands. The heavy pressure took a toll on Favre. The veteran suffered a left leg injury in the third quarter, but returned to finish what could be his final game. Favre, who came out of retirement a second time to resume his NFL career with the Vikings, was disconsolate after the loss, but declined to publicly suggest that the game was his swan song. "I think we led the league in quarterback pressures -- maybe not sacks but hitting the guy -- and we came at [Favre] all night," said right end Will Smith, who finished with six tackles and one forced fumble. "They weren't love-taps, either, man. I think it had a [cumulative] effect on him. After he got hurt, you could tell it was bothering him. He was limping around and could barely make it to the line of scrimmage at times. We knew we had to take advantage of that." The New Orleans defense failed to take advantage of a lot of breaks, though, for much of the game. The butterfingered Vikings fumbled six times, including a pair by tailback Adrian Peterson, but the Saints recovered only three of the bobbles. One recovery, by defensive tackle Remi Ayodele in the fourth quarter, set up a Drew Brees 5-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Bush that staked the Saints to a 28-21 lead. But the Vikings rallied back to tie the contest at 28 on Peterson's third score of the game, a 2-yard run, setting up a nail-biting finish. Peterson rushed for 122 yards on 25 carries, snapping a career-long streak of eight games without a 100-yard performance. But the Saints' defense, burned on a run-blitz on the opening possession, when Peterson romped thorough a wide hole off the left side for a 19-yard touchdown run, kept coming. The Saints' defenders tackled well close to the line of scrimmage, if not always in the secondary, and limited Peterson's cutbacks. The Vikings more than doubled the Saints in first downs (31-15), and had healthy advantages in total yards (475-257) and time of possession (36:49-27:56). Still, the Saints didn't alter their defensive calls. It became almost a pattern: On virtually every second or third down, the Saints would send at least one extra rusher, the Minnesota line would hold firm in terms of not permitting a sack, but Favre would absorb a shock. "Sooner or later, we just felt that if we kept hitting him, he would [throw] one in our hands," said strong safety Roman Harper. "As great a player as he is, he's known to do that, you know? He threw us a few and we didn't hold onto them. But we still got our share [of interceptions]." In addition to Porter's late interception, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma also had a pick, to go with five tackles, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. In addition to the recoveries by Vilma and Ayodele, linebacker Scott Fujita pounced on a loose ball on the New Orleans 4-yard line that came near the end of the first half and preserved a 14-14 intermission tie. And then there were the countless hits on Favre, who still completed six passes of 20 yards or more. Said Favre, who looked all of his 40 years afterward: "I've felt better. It was a very physical game probably more so than people think." The outing was indicative of a New Orleans defense that statistically ranked 25th in the NFL during the regular season, but was second in the league in takeaways (39). It's not often that a defense could surrender 28 points and allow a quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards (310) and still advance to the Super Bowl. But the emotional Saints -- and owner Tom Benson, who boogied on the sideline, trademark parasol in hand, after Hartley's game winner -- will meet New Orleans native Peyton Manning and the AFC champion Indianapolis Colts on Feb. 7 in Super Bowl XLIV. For this team, this city and this defense, another Cajun phrase comes readily to mind: Laissez les bon temps roulez. Let the good times roll. Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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