Man in the middle: Vikings' Pat Williams relishes return to playoffs
Before last Sunday, Pat Williams' last playoff game was 'Music City Miracle'
At 37, Williams is preparing for his first conference championship game
Williams anchors Vikings defense, which faces tough test against Drew Brees
Now that it's over, Pat Williams knows the wait was worth it. Now that he has tasted victory in the NFL playoffs after 13 long years of doing without, he knows nothing else really compares.
"All those years, I always wondered if I'd get there,'' Williams, the veteran Vikings defensive tackle, told me this week. "I wondered if I'd ever get the opportunity again. All I ever wanted was to win a playoff game, and get a chance to get to that Super Bowl. Last Sunday against Dallas, I never felt like that before, with that kind of adrenaline. I never felt nothing like that in the whole world out there.''
Brett Favre's age-defying comeback isn't the only feel-good story unfolding in Minnesota this season, and one of my favorites revolves around the underappreciated Williams and his long road back to the NFL's postseason. As an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M in 1997, Williams signed with Buffalo and wound up playing in a pair of playoff games as a Bill, one each in 1998 and 1999. But those Wade Phillips-coached Buffalo teams lost both, the second one in agonizing fashion at Tennessee, when the Titans pulled off their celebrated Music City Miracle in the game's dying moments.
How'd you like to live with that defeat for an entire decade, knowing it's as close as you may ever come to winning a playoff game? That was Williams' fate until last Sunday, when he finally returned to the NFL's postseason scene, playing in the middle of a Vikings defense that swarmed Tony Romo and set a franchise playoff record with six sacks of the Dallas quarterback.
"Ten years between playoff games, that was pretty cruel,'' said Williams, who missed Minnesota's first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia last year with a shoulder injury. "I still see that Music City Miracle game on TV once in a while, but I think this year is going to wipe away all of that. My plan is for this year to take care of all of that.''
Preparing for his first trip to a conference title game at age 37, Williams this week is fixated on taking that last big step to the Super Bowl, a game he has watched with more envy than enjoyment in past years. That Sunday's NFC Championship Game in New Orleans will be a homecoming of sorts for Williams, who was raised in Monroe, La., could make the story all the sweeter. The Superdome is the route Williams and the Vikings must take to the Super Bowl.
"It's a huge challenge, and we're taking nothing for granted,'' Williams said of Minnesota's matchup with the top-seeded Saints (14-3). "We're not looking past them, we're just worried about our game plan and nothing else. I'm leaving it all on the field this year. This is my first real chance.''
Williams, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, said he has talked Super Bowl with the likes of Favre, who has both won and lost that game, and Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson, who went and lost with Seattle four years ago. But he knows it's not one of those experiences that can be shared vicariously.
"It's something you've got to feel for yourself,'' he said. "No one can do it for you. I've talked to Brett and Hutch about it, but it's something you've got to play and experience for yourself. I want to know what that's like.''
As well-decorated as the Vikings defensive line is, last Sunday's 34-3 divisional-round dismantling of Dallas was eye-opening. Defensive ends Ray Edwards and Jared Allen, along with Williams and the other half of the famed Williams Wall, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, had themselves a jailbreak of a pass rush against the out-manned Cowboys. Romo had never been sacked six times in a game in his NFL career, and the defensive front set the tempo in a game that Minnesota was not expected to dominate.
"All I know is it felt like they were putting us down all week, with everyone talking about big Dallas's offensive line was and how great they were,'' Williams said. "We were taking that personally. During the week, Jared said 'We're going to kill these guys. We're going to kill 'em.' And we just followed his lead. We were teeing off and having fun.
"I've never been on a defense like this. Last week I could just see how focused guys were. I felt the [hunger] in the locker room. When I felt that, I knew we were going to win.''
Williams is the 6-foot-3, 317-pound anchor of a Vikings defense that ranked second against the rush this season, after three consecutive years of leading the league in that department. But this season, Minnesota led the NFL in sacks with 48, and it's that pass rush that probably gives the Vikings the best possible chance of hanging in there against the Saints and their explosive Drew Brees-led passing game.
Williams was the Vikings' priority free-agent signing in 2005, the final season of the team's often controversial four-year Mike Tice head coaching era. Coming over from Buffalo, where he had spent the first eight years of his career, Williams arrived just in time for Minnesota's infamous Love Boat scandal, and he, Kevin Williams and cornerback Antoine Winfield are the only three remaining defensive starters who pre-date the start of the Brad Childress coaching tenure in 2006.
Williams signed with Minnesota in the final days of Red McCombs' team ownership, but has become a favorite of current Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, who purchased the team in early 2005.
"When I came here, there were a lot of good guys, but the chemistry wasn't good,'' Williams said. "After my first year here, I doubted whether I'd made the right decision. When I first came here, it wasn't even like a pro team. It was terrible.
"But since Zygi came in, with the new coaching staff, and an owner willing to spend the money for good players and make things first class, everything changed. They got the chemistry right, and basically everybody fell in and got behind coach Childress.''
With Favre's resurgence front and center, and the team's first playoff win since 2004 already in the bank, this season has been a veritable joyride in Minnesota. Williams said the Vikings locker room will follow Favre's lead as far as he takes them, and one more historic step looms this week in New Orleans.
"He's just fun to watch, so stress free about everything,'' Williams said. "He's going to make something happen out there, and when he doesn't, we've got his back. The guy makes everyone have fun. He's a 40-year-old playing like a 20-year-old. But everyone's feeling young around here this season. That's what winning does.''
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