Vikings, Saints go separate directions

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2011 - 6:39 AM

Less than two years ago, the Vikings and Saints met for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Only one of those teams still is riding that wave.

"There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. ... Our time is now."

That was the message from coach Brad Childress that was attached to each player's locker stall when the Vikings played the Saints in the NFC Championship Game at the Superdome on Jan. 24, 2010.

Looking back on it 23 months later, Childress' words take on a certain cryptic tone. They were right, but not in the way Childress had intended them.

When the Vikings didn't seize their moment -- ruining a dominating performance with five turnovers in a 31-28 overtime loss -- few, if any, suspected that the window of opportunity for Childress and that particular team slammed shut the moment Garrett Hartley's game-winning 40-yard field goal cleared the crossbar.

"In my mind, that seems like eons ago," said current coach Leslie Frazier, whose Vikings (2-11) play the Saints (10-3) on Sunday at Mall of America Field. "So much has transpired between that time and where we are today."

Since that game, the Vikings are 8-21. The Saints, meanwhile, are 22-9, including a Super Bowl victory and two playoff berths.

"This is a funny league," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "No. 1, you can go through [and point to] injuries very quickly. And in Minnesota, they're also playing a young quarterback [Christian Ponder] now. ... You recognize and appreciate how hard it is each year to win football games. You never take that for granted."

Even though the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, it was the Vikings, with 22 returning starters, who were the popular pick to win Super Bowl XLV. But a loss to the Saints on opening day triggered a nightmarish 3-7 start that got Childress fired and Frazier promoted to interim coach.

"Obviously, a big difference between where we are and where the Saints are is they've had continuity in their coaching for [six] years," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "We've gone through a coaching change. We're doing some shuffling."

Look no further than the quarterback position as the main reason these teams have sped in opposite directions. The Saints have Drew Brees in the prime of his career. The Vikings have shuffled in five quarterbacks -- Brett Favre, Tarvaris Jackson, Joe Webb, Donovan McNabb and the rookie Ponder -- since Favre's magical 2009 season came to a bitter end with his interception in the closing seconds of regulation in that NFC title game.

"It's a quarterback-driven league," Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell said. "We had a great team in '09, but really, the catalyst was the unbelievable year that Brett had."

While Ponder struggles with 13 turnovers, a 1-6 record and last week's benching in Detroit, Brees once again is playing spectacularly while hunting down numerous NFL passing records. Among many statistical highlights, he's on pace for 5,376 passing yards, which would obliterate Dan Marino's mark of 5,089 set in 1984.

"If you don't think having one veteran quarterback makes all the different, look what's going on in Indianapolis," said Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams, referring to the Colts' 0-13 record without Peyton Manning. "You never think one guy is that important, but he is."

Brees and Payton have been together for six seasons. Brees and each of his top four wide receivers have been together for at least five seasons. Big difference there.

Each team still has 13 starters from that 2009 season. But while the Vikings have regressed at many positions, the Saints have become stronger in key areas that have made Brees even more dangerous.

First, they added massive tight end Jimmy Graham, the NFL's second-leading receiver with 80 catches for 1,101 yards and eight touchdowns, with a third-round draft pick in 2010. Then they picked up running backs Mark Ingram (first round) and Darren Sproles (free agent) this year. Those two have teamed with Pierre Thomas to give the formerly run-challenged Saints an eighth-ranked running attack to go with their top-ranked passing attack.

"A lot has happened the last two years," Brees said. "We're a veteran team that's been through a lot. I think we've kind of learned the formula for winning and sustaining success."

Meanwhile, the Vikings were in the locker room on Wednesday talking about how they're goal now is to avoid posting the franchise record for losses. They need to go 2-1 to beat the 3-13 mark of Les Steckel's 1984 team.

"Even a blind squirrel finds a nut," defensive end Jared Allen said. "So we have a chance."

Yes, a lot has changed in the past 23 months.


    Noon Sunday vs. New Orleans • Mall Of America Field • TV: Ch. 9 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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