Sports

NFC: Saints aim to make history against Vikings

CONFERENCE MATCHUPS


Minnesota Vikings' Brett Favre celebrates with Sidney Rice, front, during an NFL divisional playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 2:45 p.m.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton allowed himself a little self reflection after his team's impressive 45-14 rout of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC divisional playoffs on Saturday evening in the Louisiana Superdome.

Facts

CONFERENCE MATCHUPS

What: The New York Jets at the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC division and the Minnesota Vikings at the New Orleans Saints in the NFC division.
When: Sunday; AFC game is 3 p.m.; NFC game is 6:40 p.m.
Where: AFC game is at Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis; the NFC game is in the Superdome, New Orleans.
TV: AFC game is on CBS; the NFC game is on FOX.

"So much for being rusty," he said with a grin.

On Sunday, however, back at the Saints' training facility in Metairie, La., Payton was a lot less glib as he prepared for his second NFC championship game since becoming the team's head coach in 2006. And that was before Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings made a statement of their own, crushing the suddenly feeble Dallas Cowboys 34-3 in Minneapolis.

The Vikings (13-4) are on their way to the Big Easy, where they'll be a slight underdog for Sunday's NFC title game against the Saints. The winner goes to the Super Bowl.

The Vikings represented the NFC in the Super Bowl's formative years four times, and they were never really competitive in any of them. They haven't played in the Super Bowl since Jan. 9, 1977, when Ken Stabler and the Oakland Raiders crushed the Vikes 32-14 at the Rose Bowl.

The Saints, on the other hand, are one of five current NFL franchises never to play in the Super Bowl. They got close once, three years ago, in Payton's first year with the team. The Chicago Bears drubbed the Saints 39-14 at Soldier Field.

This time, the Saints (14-3) get to play on their home turf, in the late television window. The Saints will tangle with the Vikings on Sunday in the Superdome. It will be a festive atmosphere, to say the least.

"We're excited to get the win," Payton said at his press conference on Sunday morning. "We knew we were playing a good team (Arizona) coming in here with postseason experience and we came out and gave up the big run (Tim Hightower's 70-yard score on the first play from scrimmage). After that, defensively, I thought we got back in it, and I was encouraged with the overall effort of our team."

The game was Reggie Bush's personal highlight reel. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner was coming back from microfracture knee surgery and has had a limited impact in his fourth NFL season. On Saturday, though, Bush was electric, scoring on a deft 46-yard run that put the Saints in front before reeling off a scintillating 83-yard punt return for another touchdown.

Payton was asked if he purposely gave Bush a little extra rest late in regular-season play with the idea of turning him loose in the playoffs.

"The key is having your guys at full strength (for the playoffs), and we did feel like, in his case, that (Bush) was completely healthy," Payton said. "He has looked real sharp in practice of late. A few months ago I told him, 'Just keep chopping wood and working hard. You're too explosive of a player.'

"He had good energy and good effort and he made some big plays for us."

Instead of chopping wood, though, Bush was bringing it. The Saints used a couple of motivational techniques by re-signing beloved tailback Deuce McAllister, who was the honorary captain for the game, and having McAllister and Bush lead the team onto the field. Bush was carrying a black bat with the inscription, "Bring The Wood."

"It's just something we did as a team," Payton said Saturday evening. "We thought this was a game where we needed to play physical, and let's leave it at that."

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