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Saints survive Vikings in overtime, 31-28, to win NFC championship

As the parties began in the French Quarter, the Vikings agonized over losing a game they felt they should have had.

"This was a real tough one," Peterson said. "I felt they didn't win the game but rather, we lost it. You can't turn the ball over like that and expect to win."

The Saints won the coin toss in overtime and kept their winning drive going by converting a fourth-and-inches gamble at the Vikings 43-yard line on a first-down leap by Thomas. The Saints also were aided by a pass interference penalty on linebacker Ben Leber that had the Vikings angry at the call. That led to Hartley's decisive kick.

"I just turned around and put my hands up in the air because I knew this team was headed to Miami," Hartley said. "It's funny. I couldn't sleep last night and I called my dad at 2:15 in the morning and said 'I have a feeling I'm gonna hit a game-winner from 42 yards from the right hash.' I think I was off by two yards."

The Superdome was even louder than usual. But Favre and the Minnesota offense operated smoothly early on, as the Vikings drove 80 yards for a touchdown on their opening possession. Favre made an off-target throw on the first play, then connected on his next six passes. Rookie wide receiver Percy Harvin, who missed two practices during the week because of his latest bout with migraine headaches, was involved in the offense right away.

So, too, was Peterson, who began the day without a 100-yard rushing performance in eight straight games. Peterson scored a touchdown on a 19-yard dash, making a sharp cut to his left after taking a handoff from Favre and accelerating through the middle of the New Orleans defense on his way to the end zone.

Brees and the Saints had an immediate reply, answering with a touchdown drive of their own. Thomas went the final 38 yards after making the catch on a screen pass from Brees, darting down the right sideline and then, with the help of some good blocking, weaving his way to the middle of the field.

Favre absorbed two jarring hits the next time the Vikings had the ball, one by defensive end Bobby McCray on a running play and one by blitzing safety Darren Sharper, Favre's former Green Bay Packers teammate, just after delivering a pass. But McCray's hit drew a 15-yard personal foul, one of three defensive penalties by the Saints that helped the Vikings to their second touchdown. Favre got the touchdown with a five-yard pass to Rice, who had three touchdown catches a week earlier against the Dallas Cowboys.

The Saints punted on their second drive but got even on their third possession. Bush got free in the secondary for a 28-yard catch-and-run to get the Saints into scoring position, and Brees delivered with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Henderson.

Both offenses slowed down from there after the frantic beginning. The Saints were stopped on third-and-one running plays on consecutive second-quarter possessions, and the Vikings squandered an opportunity to take the lead just before halftime.

Bush had a touchdown on a punt return in the Saints' second-round playoff win, and the crowd chanted his name each time he readied to receive a punt on Sunday. But he dropped the ball on a punt return with just more than a minute to play in the half, and the Vikings recovered the muff at the Saints 10-yard line. But on second down from the 4, Favre and Peterson botched the exchange on a handoff and Saints linebacker Scott Fujita recovered the fumble.

The offenses got back in gear just after halftime. The Saints got a 61-yard return by Courtney Roby on the opening kickoff of the second half, and capitalized with a nine-yard touchdown run by Thomas to take the lead for the first time. The Vikings got even when Peterson bulled his way into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown run, after they recovered a fumble by Peterson earlier on the drive.

Peterson fumbled again on the Vikings' next possession but got the ball back himself, and the drive was extended by a roughing-the-passer penalty on Saints defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove for driving Favre into the turf on a hit. But Favre threw an interception to end the drive on a pass directly to linebacker Jonathan Vilma, and limped off the field after a high-and-low hit by McCray and defensive tackle Remi Ayodele.

"I thought it was a gutty, gritty performance," Childress said. "I thought he gutted it out. . . . He was going back in the game. That wasn't a question."

The Vikings got the ball back but Harvin lost a fumble on a running play. The Saints took over at the Minnesota 7-yard line, and scored on a four-yard pass from Brees to Bush. It originally was ruled that Bush was out of bounds inside the 1-yard line, but the play was called a touchdown after an instant replay review prompted by a challenge by Saints Coach Sean Payton.

The Vikings crafted a drive but wide receiver Bernard Berrian lost a fumble at the Saints 10. They got the ball back after Payton's replay challenge failed to get the Saints a first down, and got even on Peterson's two-yard touchdown. The Vikings drove toward a possible field goal in the final seconds of regulation, but took a penalty for having too many men in the huddle and Favre threw an interception to cornerback Tracy Porter to set the stage for overtime and Hartley's kick.

"It means a lot to the people here," Saints defensive end Will Smith said. "We know that. I think the fans were more nervous than we were. I know they're gonna be partying the next two weeks until the Super Bowl."

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