Adrian Peterson, who had rushed for three touchdowns but also had a hand in three fumbles, ran the ball on first and second down, producing only two yards. It looked as if Minnesota coach Brad Childress were playing for overtime—a risky move because if the Vikings didn't win the coin flip and gain first possession, they might not touch the ball in OT. Childress said later that his goal was to either end the fourth quarter with a score or keep the ball away from the Saints so they wouldn't get another shot in regulation. But the two-minute warning had come between Peterson's carries, and New Orleans quickly stopped the clock again with 1:52 left, forcing Minnesota's hand on third down. Now the Vikings would have to go to the air. But the next three plays—two Favre passes followed by a 14-yard run by Chester Taylor—produced three first downs and 44 yards. And when it was third-and-10 at the Saints' 33 with 19 seconds left, Minnesota called a timeout.
The noise in the dome was deafening for most of the night—the New Orleans Times-Picayune decibel meter measured the din as approaching jet-engine level at this point—and for one of the few times in the game Minnesota had a mix-up in communication before play resumed. There was an extra fullback, Naufahu Tahi, in the huddle. On the New Orleans' side of the ball, the alert Ayodele motioned one of the officials over and said, "They've got 12 men in the huddle." (An extra man in the huddle is illegal because the offense has the advantage of altering its lineup when it comes to the line without the defense receiving the same benefit.) The penalty pushed Minnesota from its 33-yard line (about a 50-yard field goal attempt for reliable Ryan Longwell) to the 38, slightly out of the kicker's range.
On third down at the 33, Childress would have called a running play and left the game up to Longwell. After the ball was moved back five yards, Childress needed five to 10 yards.
The Saints were lined up in man coverage when Vilma noticed the Vikings were in a formation he thought would result in two wideouts running pick plays—pass routes designed so that receivers cross paths in an attempt to bump the coverage men off the routes. At least one receiver would come open, Vilma figured, so he quickly changed the defensive call. "[Defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams trusts me to change calls like that, which I appreciate," Vilma said afterward. "So at the last second I changed us into Cover Two." The new coverage allowed cornerback Tracy Porter, aligned in the zone up the right seam where Sidney Rice was expected to run, to watch Favre's eyes instead of running with Rice and tracking only the receiver's motions. "I saw Brett locked onto Sidney," Porter said. "I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time."
As the play unfolded and Favre rolled right, New Orleans took another calculated gamble. Some defensive coordinators would tell their players to spy a passer moving out of the pocket, making sure he doesn't turn into a runner. Not Williams. He told his team not to worry about Favre's running the ball. "Brett doesn't run," the free safety Sharper said. "We all knew that." With the Saints hanging back, Favre could have easily run for five to seven yards, setting the ball on the right hash mark for a winning field goal try. "I should have run," he said later.
Favre's pass was a bullet, but to the wrong man. Porter made the interception (the Vikings' fifth turnover of the day), ending Minnesota's golden opportunity—and, as it turned out, its season.
With the Saints winning the coin toss in overtime, Favre could only stew on the sideline, wishing for another chance as New Orleans drove to the Vikings' 22. Then rookie Garrett Hartley ran out to attempt the winning field goal. "Just imagine there's a fleur-de-lis between the two goal posts," Payton told Hartley, referring to the team's logo. Hartley's 40-yard kick was perfect.
After the game Favre seemed to feel sadder for his 10-year-old daughter, Breleigh, who last summer had encouraged him to come out of retirement again and keep playing, than he did for himself. "I'm sure her heart's broke," he said, pausing. "Of course, so is mine."
A mile down Poydras Street from the Superdome, at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Payton was entertaining a gathering of family, friends and the famous, as he usually does after home games. He so loved the Saturday-night video presentation to his team that he couldn't resist showing it to the group at the restaurant. Singers Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffett were there, as were some of the players and even one of Payton's old high school coaches from Naperville, Ill. After the video ended, Payton beamed like a proud father. He nodded in acknowledgment to Ronnie Lott, standing in the back of the room, just taking it all in.
The Saints were on their way.