As his receivers congratulated him in the locker room, Gus Frerotte undressed slowly, revealing undergarments put together either by Michelin or George Lucas.

He had what looked like space-age padding woven into the fabric around his ribs, his lower back, his hips. He needed every bit of it on Monday night.

Frerotte saved the Vikings' season by putting his 37-year-old body on the line in the game's biggest moments, making the three throws that gave the Vikings a 30-27 victory over the New Orleans Saints on "Monday Night Football."

In a raucous Superdome, it was Frerotte who made Vikings fans groan, taking shots that knocked him flat and left him gasping on the turf. Knowing he was about to get knocked into Mardi Gras, Frerotte silenced 70,000 screaming fans who couldn't believe someone with Frerotte's limitations could trump the remarkable Reggie Bush.

"He's a tough guy,'' Vikings coach Brad Childress said of Frerotte. "He didn't just come back to play tiddlywinks. He came back to compete.''

Until early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings hadn't gained more than 17 yards on any offensive play, despite facing the NFL's 27th ranked defense. They took a 20-10 lead because of Antoine Winfield's 59-yard return of a blocked field goal and because a Winfield sack and strip set up another gift touchdown.

The offense had done nothing to win the game, though, until the Saints made it 27-20, on Bush's second punt return for a touchdown.

Frerotte, who spent three quarters throwing quickly to avoid sacks, knew he had to look farther downfield. He knew that would leave him vulnerable, yet he stood tall.

Midway through the fourth, Frerotte scrambled around the pocket and took a vicious blow that left him gasping on the ground. While he was still gasping, Bernard Berrian hauled in the pass for a 36-yard gain.

Childress expected Frerotte to miss a few plays, but he quickly saw the starter jogging back into the game.

"You know you're going to take the hit at that time,'' Childress said. "I was looking for Tarvaris, and then I see 12 going back in the game.''

A few plays later, Frerotte scrambled -- "scrambled'' being a relative term -- and again took a hit just as he flung one toward Berrian. This time, Berrian made a diving catch in the end zone, and it was 27-27.

Then the Saints made their biggest mistake of the game. Facing second-and-10 at the Vikings 29 with a little more than two minutes remaining, the Saints decided not to run twice.

Had they done so, they could have gained a few yards, taken a chunk of time off the clock and set up a closer field goal attempt for Martin Gramatica.

Instead, Drew Brees threw two incomplete passes, and Gramatica missed a 46-yard field goal.

That gave the Vikings time to drive, and when another long pass from Frerotte to Berrian produced a pass interference call, the Vikings were suddenly set up to win a game they seemed determined to lose. A game that, in reality, they had to win.

Ryan Longwell's 30-yard field goal made it 30-27, and suddenly it didn't matter that the Vikings' offense had spent three quarters looking as ugly as Bourbon Street's gutters at 3 a.m.

"Gus was definitely taking a beating,'' Berrian said. "I'm just glad he was able to get those balls out. It's just willpower, strong character, to stand in there and take the hits.''

Frerotte could have retired after last season, could have figured neither his body nor ego could take any more of a beating at the toughest position in sports.

Monday, in a game that left players gasping in pain and fans gasping in astonishment, Frerotte kept getting back on his feet.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP.