NEW ORLEANS, JAN. 3 -- The Minnesota Vikings were "who dat" was today. Offenses rarely get more diverse than this, as the Vikings scored off a punt, scored off a trick play, scored off a bomb, scored off a replay and scored a 44-10 wild-card victory over the New Orleans Saints.
"Who dat?" is a colloquial term for the Saints, but so, too, is "Aints." If this looked like 1969, it was with good reason, because the Vikings looked like the "Purple People Eaters" from Minnesota's NFC championship team that year.
In fact, the Vikings, who now must play the San Francisco 49ers Saturday in the next round of the playoffs, resembled the 1987 Saints in that they won with special teams, ball control and defense. One Superdome sign said: "No Mora Excuses," and Saints Coach Jim Mora didn't offer any, though his players did.
The Saints, making their first playoff appearance and coming into the game after nine straight victories, trailed, 31-10, at the half on several back-breaking plays, but none bigger than the very last. The score was 24-10 with just seconds left before intermission, and Vikings Coach Jerry Burns was content to run out the clock and did so. Unfortunately, one of the Saints' defensive players forgot to run off the field, and the referees penalized New Orleans five yards for playing with 12 men. The Vikings had a free play.
Afterward, Burns said, "I don't know why I did it," but he sent out a woozy Wade Wilson to throw a Hail Mary pass. The ball fell in and out and back into the hands of wide receiver Hassan Jones for a 44-yard touchdown with a half-dozen Saints in the area. The Saints' defensive backs say they practice defending that play, but apparently not enough. The game essentially was over.
Still, Saints' defenders offered their excuses, saying Jones didn't catch the ball. "It hit the ground," said free safety Brett Maxie, who stood two inches from Jones and had a pretty good view. "Johnnie says so, too."
Nickel back Johnnie Poe nodded his agreement.
Nonetheless, the game was all but over, even though Mora said "the guys were up and felt they could come back" at halftime. The Saints led the NFL in time of possession this season, but the Vikings outclocked them today, 41:18 to 18:42.
The Vikings standouts were wide receiver Anthony Carter, running back Darrin Nelson, defensive tackle Keith Millard and punter Bucky Scribner. Carter, for instance, returned six punts for 143 yards, including an 84-yard first-quarter touchdown return -- longest in playoff history.
That's a lot of impact, considering the Saints gained only 149 total yards on offense. Carter had returned only three punts this year, for the same reason Darrell Green doesn't return more for the Redskins. Burns is afraid to get him banged up, but told Carter "all the top dogs have to go in the playoffs."
Actually, Burns recently had seen a college photograph of Carter, which showed that he was one of Michigan's all-time leading punt returners. Burns, also a Michigan grad, apparently got the idea then to use him back deep.
The Saints had led, 7-3, right before the return. In fact, they led, 7-0, four plays into the game. The Vikings started oft-injured Tommy Kramer at quarterback, and he was sacked by linebacker Ricky Jackson (10 tackles, one sack) on the first play. On the second play, Kramer fumbled the exchange from center Kirk Lowdermilk, the Saints' Vaughan Johnson recovering. Two plays later, Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert hit Eric Martin with a 10-yard touchdown pass.
Naturally, the crowd of 68,127 got riled. Signs were everywhere. One said, "See Ya'll In Chicago."
Kramer, meanwhile, had said, "See ya'll later." His sore throwing shoulder had been reinjured on the fumble, and Wade Wilson replaced him. Wilson couldn't move the team, and that's when Scribner's left foot came into play.
Burns often inadvertently refers to Scribner as "Cookie Gilchrist," but Saints returner Mel Gray was calling him nasty names today. The strange spin of Scribner's left-footed punts fooled Gray, who let one kick bounce off his chest. The Vikings recovered the free ball and converted the miscue into a field goal.
Carter's return (he weaved behind blocks by Carl Lee and Isiac Holt) made the score 10-7, and then Millard began wreaking havoc on the Saints' offense. In all, Millard was credited with four tackles, one assist and one sack, but don't forget about eight hurries of Hebert and three holding penalties on guard Brad Edelman, who couldn't block him.
The Vikings made it 17-7 on a third-down touchdown pass to tight end Steve Jordan in the second quarter. The Vikings had had terrible luck scoring inside the 20, but Wilson split the Saints' zone perfectly for the touchdown. Seconds before, Poe had leaped and apparently intercepted Wilson's pass, but referees then decided that he'd dropped it when he hit the ground. Again, replay officials agreed, and the Vikings went in to score. Nelson's 37-yard screen pass set up Jordan's touchdown.
Another first-half touchdown came on a trick halfback-option play from running back Allen Rice to Carter. Rice had played some quarterback at Baylor, but the Saints apparently didn't know that. Actually, the Vikings had planned to use the halfback option against the Redskins last week, but a local television station had shown them practicing it on the 11 o'clock news the night before the game, and Burns was afraid Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs saw it.
It worked fine today, as Rice rolled to his right and threw across his body for the 10-yard touchdown.
Just a few minutes later, Wilson got knocked in the head while scrambling. Kramer, who still had the sore arm, came in to replace him.
"Wade got knocked silly, and he was walking over to the Saints' huddle by mistake," Kramer said.
Kramer was going to finish the half, but Burns sent Wilson in to throw that Hail Mary pass.
"I was kind of shaky, but throwing it straight up in the air was no problem," Wilson said.
The Saints obviously couldn't recover from a 21-point deficit, especially without star running back Rueben Mayes (who had sprained his knee in the second quarter) and without Hebert (who suffered a bruised eye in the third quarter).
The Saints' crowd still was appreciative, clapping in the final seconds when owner Tom Benson did his weekly boogie. But Vikings defender Carl Lee summed it up as he raced into the locker room chanting: "Who dat? Who dat? We dat!"
Minnesota 10 21 3 10 44 New Orleans 7 3 0 0 10
NO -- Martin 10 pass from Hebert (Andersen kick), 1:23.
M -- FG C. Nelson 42, 6:59.
M -- Carter 84 punt return (C. Nelson kick), 11:57. Second Quarter
M -- Jordan 5 pass from Wilson (C. Nelson kick), 3:19.
M -- Carter 10 pass from Rice (C. Nelson kick), 8:50.
NO -- FG Andersen 40, 11:54.
M -- Jones 44 pass from Wilson (C. Nelson kick), 15:00.Third Quarter
M -- FG C. Nelson 32, 13:45. Fourth Quarter
M -- FG C. Nelson 19, 7:46.
M -- Dozier 8 run (C. Nelson kick), 13:14.
A -- 68,127. Vikings Saints First downs 28 9 Rushes-yards 50-210 14-53 Passing yards 207 96 Return yards 188 0 Passing 17-30-0 11-31-4 Sacked-yards lost 6-42 2-8 Punts-average 3-32 6-44 Fumbles-lost 4-2 3-2 Penalties-yards 5-42 4-26 Time of possession 41:18
RUSHING -- Minnesota: D. Nelson 17-73, Anderson 7-49, Dozier 8-45, Fenney 7-20, Rice 4-10, Kramer 2-5, Wils
PASSING -- Minnesota: Kramer 5-9-0, 50 yards, Wilson 11-20-0, 189, Rice 1-1-0, 10. New Orleans: Hebert 9-19
RECEIVING -- Minnesota: Carter 6-79, D. Nelson 2-56, Lewis 2-27, Rice 2-17, Jordan 2-17, Jones 1-44, Gustaf
MISSED FIELD GOALS -- None.