NFL: Vikings vs. Saints a tasty dish in New Orleans
By BARRY WILNER
AP Football Writer
NEW ORLEANS — What a spicy Cajun mix for the NFC championship game.
Brett Favre, headed for the Hall of Fame someday, highlights yet another comeback by facing the team he rooted for while growing up in Mississippi.
His Minnesota Vikings — ouch, say Packers fans — are on the doorstep of their first Super Bowl trip in 33 years, with the 40-year-old quarterback resembling the wide-eyed youngster who took Green Bay to the title in the very same Superdome in 1997.
And those Superdome tenants, the New Orleans Saints, are hosting a conference championship for the first time. A Super Bowl would provide a massive lift for a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina's devastation and torment more than four years ago.
A Saints victory Sunday could set off Mardi Gras a few weeks early, with the celebration carrying on right up until the Feb. 7 big game in Miami.
Along with those tasty story lines, remember that these are the NFL's two highest-scoring teams, with offensive playmakers who can light up scoreboards and make fans' heads spin.
But they also have such defensive standouts as Vikings All-Pro end Jared Allen, who led the NFC with 14½ sacks; Saints end Will Smith, who was second to Allen with 13; and New Orleans All-Pro Darren Sharper, a ball-hawking safety who ran back three of his league-leading nine interceptions for touchdowns and, incidentally, was dumped by the Vikings last year after four seasons in Minnesota.
TV couldn't come up with a better script for prime-time viewing.
"It's hard to explain," Favre said. "But as exciting and as exhilarating as the win is, the reality is I was fortunate enough to win one Super Bowl (1997 in New Orleans), the next year we lose one. And I think more about the one we lost than the one we won. I can't explain it to you how that feeling is, so the championship game is no different. I've always treated every playoff game like it's the Super Bowl."
Few of the Saints (14-3) have been in such a position. As a long-underachieving franchise since their founding in 1966, the Saints have been to exactly one conference final, losing at Chicago three years ago. This is just their seventh time in the playoffs in a 44-year existence perhaps most renowned for their fans wearing paper bags on their heads — nope, Favre never went that far growing up — and dubbing the team Aints.
Their recent success, particularly in the 2006 season following a year as nomads because of Katrina, has been inspiring. The prospect of being host in the rebuilt Superdome — a symbol for New Orleans as important as the Golden Gate Bridge is for San Francisco — has locals in a frenzy. One of the great party cities in America, New Orleans might be ready for an unprecedented celebration if the Saints conquer the Vikings (13-4).
"Sometimes you have to make those tough decisions and fight through adversity in order to kind of achieve what you thought you maybe might not be able to achieve otherwise," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
Brees' arrival as a free agent in 2006, along with that of coach Sean Payton, began the difficult turnaround in the Big Easy.
"I would say this city having gone through what it's gone through, and this organization having gone through what it's gone through over the past five or six years before Katrina and post-Katrina, has allowed us to have the opportunity that we have now. It's hardened us, given us an edge," he said. "But, in the end, it's made us tougher. It's brought us together. It's united us. That's all for the better."
The Vikings never have been the better team in Super Bowls. They are 4-4 when getting this far. Then, zippo.
Of course, Favre was in elementary school the last time Minnesota won the NFC. Most of the other Vikings weren't even born then.
The Vikings prefer to ignore their history. Those Super Bowl losses belong to another generation; yes, even Favre is not part of that generation.
Favre understands this won't be a homecoming, either.
"I don't think too many people down there will be compassionate that I am with the Vikings coming in," he said. "They've waited a long time for it. That's going to be a factor that we have to handle, obviously. I think it goes without saying how happy I am that we have this opportunity."