Written By Sam Ekstrom
Not to pull scabs off old wounds, but Saturday is the fifth anniversary of the most heartbreaking Vikings game in the last 15 years.
It was an emotional battle that took longer than 60 minutes to decide.
It was a game dominated by the Vikings offense, which accrued nearly 500 yards of offense.
It was a bitter defeat that contained so many goats, it’s impossible to nail down who the Bill Buckner figure was among them.
It was Brett Favre’s final shot at NFL glory.
That’s right, it’s the 2010 NFC Championship Game, played at the Superdome in New Orleans, La.
If you’ve come to grips with the loss already, then maybe it would be best to stop reading right now. Why haunt yourself with terrible memories of days gone by?
But if you haven’t forgotten; if you still hold grudges against those dirty, rotten, Bountygate Saints, then you may as well indulge in some good ol’ coulda-shoulda-woulda, complete with grainy screenshots and GIFs that will make you upset.
What if Adrian Peterson opens his arms another six inches?
The Vikings lost three fumbles in that game — all of them pivotal. Two prevented likely Vikings scores and one led directly to a Saints touchdown. But the one pictured above was by far the most preventable. Nothing gets in Peterson’s way of receiving this football except his own arms. Look at Favre’s right hand. He couldn’t have hit Peterson any more cleanly in the chest with the handoff. By the letter of the law, Favre was charged with this fumble, but don’t think for a second it wasn’t Peterson’s fault. If Peterson doesn’t botch it, the Vikings have another handful of plays to score a touchdown before halftime and take a 21-14 lead into the break. As it was, the game remained tied and the Vikings never led again.
What if Brett Favre doesn’t get illegally high-lowed?
This photo alone could prove Bountygate. See that brown blob in the top-right of the picture? That’s where the football is — about to be intercepted by Jonathan Vilma. Meanwhile, two Saints are just reaching Favre to apply a vicious — and highly illegal — high-low hit that should’ve been a 15-yard penalty to sustain the drive. That’s Remi Ayodele hitting high and Bobby McCray applying the hit to the lower legs. It’s this hit, this one here, that crippled Favre to the point where he couldn’t run for five easy yards later in the game. We’ll get to that one in a bit …
What if the Saints don’t recover that fourth quarter fumble?
One of the overlooked what-ifs from this game was Drew Brees’ fumble with less than five minutes to go. That scrum you see in the picture is the scramble for the loose ball. There are two Saints and two Vikings that converged on the ball at virtually the same moment. It was a 50/50 ball that Minnesota easily could have fallen on at the 11-yard line to set up the go-ahead score.
What if Naufahu Tahi doesn’t wander on the field?
At the time of this huddle, the Vikings are facing a 3rd-and-long at the Saints’ 32-yard line with less than a minute to go; in other words, a 50-yard field goal attempt to head to the Super Bowl. But after a clumsily-managed timeout, the Purple converged back onto the field with 12 men (count the helmets; there’s one too many), possibly the most inexplicable penalty in football history given the circumstances. See No. 38 to the right of Peterson? That’s fullback Naufahu Tahi, eventually discovered to be the culprit. This pushed the Vikings back to the 37-yard line for a potential 55-yard field goal. Not as comfortable for the veteran kicker Ryan Longwell.
We all know what happened next.
What if Favre doesn’t throw across his body?
Pardon the pixels, but do you see that white-jersied guy all alone on the top right? That’s Brett Favre rolling out of the pocket. Do you see that vast expanse of green space in front of him? That’s nothingness. Just a huge patch of field on which to scramble. If Favre doesn’t get his ankle destroyed by the aforementioned high-low hit, he’s not terrified of churning forward for probably a 5-yard gain. Instead, he wings it over the middle behind Sidney Rice and into the hands of Tracy Porter. Vikings fans never got to see Longwell’s field goal attempt, and they’ll always, always be left to wonder if he would have made it.
What if the Steve Hutchinson wins the overtime coin toss?
At the time, playoff overtime was sudden death. It was actually because of this game that the NFL changed the age-old overtime format to give both teams a chance, barring a first-possession touchdown. Offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson ignored the classic “tails never fails” rhyme and incorrectly predicted heads. As a result, the Vikes never touched the ball again. If Hutchinson won the toss, Minnesota certainly would have received, and they had been gashing New Orleans all game long. The odds of getting a field goal had to be pretty darn good.
What if the refs don’t make a ticky-tack holding call in overtime?
Here’s the first of many questionable calls in OT. It’s a 3rd-and-6 pass to Marques Colston that fell incomplete, but resulted in an automatic Saints first down thanks to a holding call against Asher Allen. Instead of Minnesota getting the ball back, New Orleans continued its drive.
Is there a brief hold as Colston bolts off the line of scrimmage? Certainly. But it doesn’t compare to the relentless tug shown below on Visanthe Shiancoe that went uncalled in the third quarter.
What if Tyrell Johnson hangs onto the interception?
Another underrated play that most people forget: Marques Colston loses control of the ball on this second down pass and practically serves it on a silver platter for Tyrell Johnson, who had running room in front of him. The only problem is Ben Leber’s awareness of the football. As he rolls over Colston, Leber senses that the ball is hovering over him and instinctively reaches up to grab it, but he accomplishes the opposite effect, essentially knocking the ball away from Johnson and preventing the game-changing turnover.
What if Pierre Thomas doesn’t magically hold on to the football?
Fourth-and-inches. Sean Payton decides to go for it from the Vikings’ 43-yard line. Running back Pierre Thomas takes the handoff and vaults himself over the pile, only to be met by Chad Greenway’s helmet. Greenway’s brilliant play jars the ball loose, which the officials don’t acknowledge when spotting the ball. Thomas is granted first down yardage before the play gets reviewed. Though the picture would seem to show that Thomas lost complete control of the ball, his ability to stop it with his … well, his groin … was enough for the refs to say he earned forward progress before the ball was knocked backward and never truly lost control. That’s a pivotal call that kept New Orleans’ drive alive — again — and prevented the Vikes from having a short field.
What if Ben Leber turns his head around?
Before the Jimmy Graham days, the Saints had less athletic tight ends. One of them was David Thomas (above), and this photo shows him falling down mid-backpedal. Linebacker Ben Leber is charging toward him, not looking at the ball, and gets called for pass interference. In fast motion, it definitely looks like the correct call, but in slow motion it’s clear that Thomas just plain trips. One has to believe that if Leber used better technique and tracked the ball instead of barreling toward Thomas, the flag would’ve stayed in the ref’s pocket and the Saints wouldn’t have gotten into field goal range at that moment.
Maybe it’s a good thing there were so many self-destructive elements in that game for the Vikings. In a way, it makes the refs’ inefficiencies easier to swallow if you’re a fan. Minnesota shouldn’t have been in overtime. Heck, if they don’t fumble, they win by double digits. If Favre doesn’t throw across his body, it’s still probably over in regulation. There were many shots to the foot prior to the officiating controversies. And somehow, that’s both relieving and disheartening at the same time.
But whether you blame the Vikes, the refs, Childress, whoever, it doesn’t soften the blow of Garrett Hartley’s winning kick.
Sam Ekstrom is a staff writer for Cold Omaha at 105 The Ticket and a play-by-play broadcaster in Burnsville, Minn. Hear him on 105 The Ticket Sunday mornings from 8-10 a.m. on “The Wake Up Call.” Follow him on Twitter @SamEkstrom for further insights.