By Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune January 27, 2010, 6:00AM The New Orleans Saints fought all season to gain the No. 1 seed and accompanying home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. It paid off in a major way for the Saints in their 31-28 overtime victory against the Vikings in the NFC championship game Sunday. adrian_peterson2.jpgMichael DeMocker/The Times-PicayuneMinnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson scrambles to recover a fumble in the second quarter of the NFC Championship game against the New Orleans Saints. The fumbled exchange between him and quarterback Brett Favre seemed the result of the noise in the Superdome causing Peterson to not hear the snap count.The crowd not only willed the exhausted Saints to victory down the stretch, but it also played a key -- perhaps overlooked -- role in one of the biggest plays of the game. Its noise appeared to disrupt the Vikings offense just enough to cause a critical fumble and prevent a potential Minnesota touchdown just before halftime. While conducting research for a column last week, Superdome architect Paul Griesemer told me the noise in the stadium is particularly intense when teams reach the red zone because of the proximity of the seating decks behind each end zone. Linebacker Scott Shanle told me earlier this season the noise in the red zone routinely threw off the timing of opponents' plays near the goal line. That appeared to be the case when the Vikings botched what should have been a routine exchange on second-and-goal from the Saints' 4-yard line a minute before halftime. Perhaps Adrian Peterson couldn't hear Brett Favre's cadence over the din, because Peterson froze in his stance for a split-second at the snap. With all of his teammates moving forward, Peterson remained cemented in his three-point stance as Favre completely pivoted around to make the handoff. The incongruity created all kinds of problems. Favre over-extended the handoff. Peterson was rushed out his stance and didn't get his eyes on the ball during the exchange. The ball didn't reach Peterson's arms, squirted free and was recovered by Saints linebacker Scott Fujita at the New Orleans 10. Plays like this are why they call it home-field "advantage." Player of the game: Few people know about David Thomas, but he played a critical role in this game. Because of injuries to Jeremy Shockey, Thomas played more than his usual reps. He was in on 54 of 55 offensive snaps, including 32 at tight end and 22 at fullback/H-back. He caught three passes for 32 yards, had several nice blocks at fullback and played a key role in pass protection out of the backfield. He also drew a critical 12-yard pass interference penalty on Ben Leber in overtime that helped the Saints get into range for Garrett Hartley's winning field goal. Thomas should have received a game ball for his fine all-around play. Pressure report: Gregg Williams had a similar plan for the Vikings as he did for most opponents. He used a wide array of looks and blitzes to confuse Favre and the Vikings line. Minnesota countered with a lot of maximum protections and really did a nice job of giving Favre time to find receivers downfield. Many of the Saints biggest hits came on base four-man rushes. The Saints did not have a sack but they hit Favre six times, and the pounding eventually took a physical toll on him. Zebra report: Pete Morelli's crew did a decent job. The shakiest call was the late-hit personal foul call against Anthony Hargrove that helped keep alive a Vikings drive. Morelli cited Hargrove for launching his body and Favre into the turf. At the time, it was a critical call because the Saints had stopped Minnesota on third-and-4 and forced a punt. Fox analyst Troy Aikman correctly stated that Hargrove was "just making the tackle. He doesn't know the ball is out." Fortunately for the Saints, they created another takeaway to get off the field. First Quarter * The Vikings opened the game with four consecutive passes and threw on seven of their first eight plays.
* The Saints blitzed both safeties on Adrian Peterson's 19-yard touchdown run, but Darren Sharper missed the tackle after Peterson cut to the backside of the play. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has loved how physical Sharper has been as a run defender this season, but this was one time where I'm sure he'd prefer Sharper to just break down and make the safe, form tackle instead of launching hid body for the blow-up hit. Sharper was the safety valve on the play and once he missed there was no one left on the back end to make the play. Peterson scored untouched.
* The Saints opened on offense in one of their favorite packages, a three-receiver set with one running back. David Thomas was the tight end in place of Shockey, and Lance Moore was the third receiver in place of Robert Meachem. Both Shockey and Meachem were on limited snap counts because of injuries. The Saints also went no-huddle on the second play but were able to substitute tackle-eligible Zach Strief for Moore and Pierre Thomas for Reggie Bush.
* The Vikings opened with some aggressive blitzes from their defensive backs. They sent cornerback Cedric Griffin on the first play, strong safety Tyrell Johnson on the second play and free safety Madieu Williams on the third play. The Saints line, with the help of backs and tight ends, effectively stonewalled each attempt.
* The Saints have used Strief at tight end throughout the season as an in-line blocker, but I've never seen them bring him in motion like they did Sunday. They did it several times with the massive 6-7, 320-pound tackle.
* They used a variety of tactics early to slow the Vikings pass rush. Brees used a hard count on the fifth play to draw tackle Pat Williams offside and plant a seed in the minds of the Vikings linemen who might be trying to jump the snap count. On the ensuing play, he went to a quick snap.
* On the seventh play of their opening drive, the Saints then went to their bread-and-butter tactic to slow down the pass rush: the screen pass. Brees hit Pierre Thomas in the right flat, and he weaved his way down the sideline for a 38-yard score. Thomas picked up some nice downfield blocks from Jahri Evans, David Thomas and Marques Colston, but the run was mostly all him. His vision and ability to read and set up blocks is what sets him apart from most backs. Two Vikings had a chance to stop him inside the 20-yard line, but he somehow slithered between linebacker Ben Leber and Williams along the sideline and cut back into the open field. Running backs coaches call that "making yourself small" at the point of contact, and Thomas is one of the best in the league at it. He gives defenders very little of his body to tackle in the hole and on cuts.
* The Saints aggressive mentality on defense haunted them on the Vikings' second series. First, end Bobby McCray jumped offside on third-and-10 to make it third-and-5, then Randall Gay was whistled for defensive holding when he engaged Percy Harvin with contact past allowable 5 yards downfield. Then, McCray was whistled for a 15-yard personal foul call for hitting defenseless Favre after a handoff to Harvin on a reverse. Saints fans didn't like the calls but they were all correct. The penalties were costly. They provided 25 of the Vikings' 73 yards in the drive, which resulted in a touchdown.
* The Vikings went after Saints nickel back Randall Gay in his matchup against Harvin to convert two third downs on their second series. First they got a holding penalty on Gay to convert a third-and-5. Then Favre beat a blitz and found Harvin for 20 yards to convert a third-and-7.
* The Saints started to use defensive tackles Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove together on the inside late in the season, and they used the combination early and often against the Vikings. What the duo lacks in bulk and size it makes up for in athleticism. The idea is to get their two best interior playmakers on the field as often as possible. In the alignment, Hargrove plays the nose tackle spot with Ellis at the three-technique.
* The Saints blitzed Favre on nearly every third down, but they elected to drop seven defenders into a zone on the third-and-5 play and Favre made them pay with a dart to Sidney Rice for the Vikings' second touchdown. Favre fit the pass into a tight window between Shanle and Gay.
* I know fans will rag on Sean Payton for the crazy reverse call on the second play of their second series, but the real blame falls on the players for poor execution. First Jeremy Shockey whiffed on his block on Ray Edwards. Carl Nicks also missed his pull block on Kevin Williams. The missed blocks allowed the defenders to penetrate the backfield and disrupt the exchange between Colston and Bush. Further, Bush appeared to wait too long at the line before reversing field to take the handoff, giving Vikings defenders too much time to diagnose the play. Bush did well to just take a 1-yard gain as he avoided a couple of would-be tackles in the backfield.
* Drew Brees and cornerback Cedric Griffin exchanged some heated trash talk at the end of the aforementioned play as Brees attempted to block Griffin near the sideline during Bush's serpentine run. Second quarter * Bush continued to finish his runs with power in this game. He plowed over safety Madieu Williams at the end of a 28-yard reception, then brandished a muscle-flex pose for the fans after he got to his feet. Heath Evans, who has encouraged Bush privately to adopt a more physical running style, came off the sidelines to congratulate him.
* The play-action passing game also helped slow the Vikings' pass rush. Prime example: Their first drive of the quarter. Devery Henderson caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Brees after a nice play-action fake froze the Vikings defense. The play worked in part because Pierre Thomas gained 12 yards on a run out of the same set and personnel package on the previous play. Jermon Bushrod stoned Vikings end Jared Allen on his rush to give Brees time to find Henderson in the right corner of the end zone. Strief did a nice job on Edwards on the other side. Brees had all day to throw thanks to the line and the play-action fake.
* The different looks and late movement the Saints throw at opposing quarterbacks is designed to create confusion. It worked on a third-and-4 on the Vikings' second drive of the quarter. The Saints crowded all three linebackers at the line of scrimmage and faked an all-out blitz. The look caused Favre to hurry an incompletion in the left flat. If he'd have taken his time, he'd have found Peterson on a swing route wide open to the right side in single coverage against Vilma.
* David Thomas is an underrated player. He made a tough shoestring grab on a crossing route on second-and-5 to put the Saints in position to convert a third-and-1. But Lynell Hamilton was dropped for a 1-yard loss and the Saints had to punt. The Vikings easily won the battle of the trenches and the play never had a chance.
* Brees got away with one on the first play of the Saints' third series. He forced a pass to Colston and Leber let the interception skip off his hands. A very un-Brees-like pass. . . . The Saints tried to get tricky on third-and-1 on their third series. They lined up Pierre Thomas at fullback and brought Bush in motion from the right slot to the tailback position. Brees then faked a dive handoff to Thomas to the right and pitched to Bush going left. The play didn't fool the Vikings at all. Both Allen and Benny Sapp were waiting on Bush outside and stopped him for no gain.
* Darius Reynaud's muffed punt turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Vikings. It confused the Saints coverage team and resulted in a 15-yard personal foul penalty against Jon Casillas for hitting Reynaud late after he recovered the muff.
* Jon Vilma delivered the hit of the half when he lowered his shoulder and slobberknocked Peterson on a sweep to the right. The hit dropped Peterson for a 1-yard gain and ignited the Saints sideline.
* Usama Young got some playing time as the dime back on the Vikings' last series. He came on a blindside blitz with Harper and forced Favre into a hurried incompletion on first down.
* The Saints again confused Favre and won the mental chess match at the line of scrimmage, forcing an incompletion on third-and-9 just before halftime. Favre saw the Saints crowding the line with three linebackers and a safety and audibled to a max protection, keeping his back and tight end in the backfield to pass block. As soon as he made the check, Vilma countered with a last-second audible, dropping the Saints out of a pressure and into coverage. As a result, the Vikings had seven blockers to protect Favre against only three rushers. The Saints had eight defenders to cover three Vikings receivers. Favre's high incompletion to Bernard Berrian in the right flat never had a chance. Game, set, chess match: Saints.
* Bush will get the blame for muffing the punt return just before halftime and rightfully so. He can't make that kind of mistake in his fourth season in the league. But the Saints return team didn't help him much. They did a poor job of holding up defenders and didn't allow Bush time and room to make a clean catch. Gay did not get a hand on Eric Frampton after he released from the right side of the Vikings' punt team. Consequently, Frampton was right in Bush's face when he tried to catch the ball, causing him to take his eyes off the ball and drop it. Gay did not play special teams much this season and his inexperienced showed on the play.
* How good is Peterson? It took six Saints defenders to bring him down on a 6-yard run right after Bush's fumble. He slipped tackle attempts by McCray, Vilma and Greer before Ellis, Ayodele and Harper finally brought him down. Third quarter * Courtney Roby is known for his speed, but he showed surprising strength on his 61-yard return to start the second half. He broke three tackles before breaking into the open field and losing a foot race to Asher Allen along the Vikings sideline.
* David Thomas made another fine catch despite taking a big hit from Madieu Williams to complete a 17-yard reception on the first play from scrimmage.
* If you want to know why Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks are considered the best guard tandem in the league, watch their work against defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams on Pierre Thomas' 9-yard touchdown run. Nicks drove Kevin Williams 3 yards off the ball, then flicked him to the ground powerfully as Thomas raced by. Evans manhandled Pat Williams at the point of attack and finished him off by pile-driving him to the turf. Evans received some initial help from center Jon Goodwin but he did most of the work himself. Goodwin showed his smarts and versatility by peeling off the double-team to take out the penetration by middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley. Goodwin must have known the Saints had blocked the play well because he raised his hands to signal touchdown with his back to the play, with Thomas 5 yards from the end zone.
* Great hustle by Vikings fullback Naufahu Tahi prevented the Saints from recovering a Peterson fumble on the Vikings' first drive of the second half. Shanle was in perfect position to scoop up the loose ball near midfield, but Vilma, who made the initial hit that forced the fumble on Peterson, knocked it away at the last instant with his right hand. . . . Peterson got the touchdown, but Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe was the main weapon during a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive to start the second half. Shiancoe had three catches for 67 yards, including a beautiful one-handed, over-the-shoulder snare against tight coverage by cornerback Tracy Porter to set up Peterson at the 1.
* The most amazing play of the night might have been Peterson's fumble recovery late in the third quarter after he was stripped by Roman Harper at the end of a nice run.
* Peterson lost the ball while going to the ground yet was athletic enough to bolt to his feet and somehow outrace six Saints defenders to the ball and recover. No other Viking was within 6 yards of the ball when it squirted free.
* The Saints did not play any 3-4 defense in the first half, but they went to it for a snap late in the quarter just to give Minnesota a different look.
* Remi Ayodele's pressure forced the hurried throw that resulted in Vilma's interception. Ayodele isn't known as a pass rusher, but he worked free off the edge after an inside stunt by end Will Smith created confusion in the Vikings' blocking scheme. A lot of my colleagues thought McCray made a cheap shot on Favre when he went low at his feet at the end of the play, but I don't agree. Looks like McCray was just trying to get Favre down any way he could. Fourth quarter * Ayodele made a tremendously athletic play to recover Harvin's fumble on the second play of the quarter. Smith stripped the ball free just after Harvin had exchanged the ball from his right to left arm. Three Saints had a chance at the ball before Ayodele reached down to grab it at the 11.
* Say this about Bush, the guy has a nose for the end zone. He showed it on the 5-yard touchdown catch he made in the right corner. That was a big play because I'm not sure anyone would have been confident on a fourth-and-1 call in that situation.
* A heady play by Vikings wide receiver Sidney Rice to break up an interception by Jabari Greer on the Vikings' ensuing series. He actually should have been called for interference when he used his right arm to pull Greer's right arm down and break up the play. It was an obvious call, and a perfect example of how the rules are slanted in the favor of offense. If the same contact has been made by a defensive player, pass interference definitely would have been called.
* The Vikings victimized Gay in single coverage again to convert a third-and-10 and keep a drive alive. This time Favre found Berrian down the left sideline for 30 yards to beat heavy pressure from the rush and quiet the sellout crowd.
* Vilma's fumble recovery after the strip of Berrian by Porter was prime example of why coaches implore their defenses to run to the football. Vilma was covering Shiancoe 10 yards away from the reception when the ball squirted free. But because he was hustling to the play, he beat both Shiancoe and center John Sullivan to the loose ball.
* Hargrove might be the best conditioned athlete on the Saints line. While everyone else looked worn down, his motor was still revving on high on the Vikings' penultimate possession. He forced a hurried incompletion by whipping Sullivan with a windmill move inside.
* Jahri Evans showed great awareness and hustle to recover Brees' fumble on the Saints' final drive of regulation. If he didn't jump on the ball then, Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams surely would have scooped it up at the Saints' 11.
* Tracy Porter temporarily looked like the goat when he failed to tackle Berrian in the open field on a short in route and allowed him to gain 5 yards after contact and convert a third-and-8.
* Favre made his best throw of the day to connect with Rice for 20 yards on the next play. Rice beat Gay, who again couldn't hold up in single coverage, then made a nice outstretched grab over Gay's shoulder. Gay's coverage wasn't terrible. But Favre's perfectly placed throw was better.
* You could see how exhausted the Saints were on Chester Taylor's 14-yard first-down run inside the final two minutes. Hargrove and Smith stood straight up at the snap and barely moved as Taylor raced by them. Gay had a chance to tackle Taylor at the line of scrimmage but whiffed.
* Vikings coaches were motioning and screaming at the Minnesota huddle before officials threw the flag for illegal participation on their penultimate play. The Vikings actually broke the huddle with 12 players and were at the line of scrimmage before Favre realized it and tried to call a timeout. As the flag is thrown, Vikings Coach Brad Childress tears into running backs coach Eric Bienemy on the sideline.
* Porter redeemed himself with the big interception in the final seconds. Favre's pass, across his body into the middle of the field, was a confounding decision. He could have run for at least 5 yards or thrown an easy pass to Berrian, who wide open at the 30 near the Vikings sideline. Just a terrible decision and one Favre will think about all offseason. Overtime * You don't hear Nick Leckey's name called very often, but the reserve center made a key block on Jasper Brinkley to spring Pierre Thomas for his 40-yard kickoff return. Troy Evans, Jeff Charleston, Marvin Mitchell and Chris Reis also walled off defenders to give Thomas a nice running lane.
* It was somewhat overlooked, but the Saints caught a break when Cedric Griffin injured his knee in a non-contact play on the turf on Thomas' kickoff return. Griffin led the Vikings with four interceptions this season and is one of the better defenders. Asher Allen replaced him, and the Saints targeted him on third-and-6 to make a critical conversion. Officials called Allen for defensive holding against Colston, giving the Saints an automatic first down.
* The football gods again shined on the Saints when safety Tyrell Johnson dropped an easy interception after teammate Ben Leber stripped it from Colston on a seam route down the middle. Leber appeared to unwittingly bat the ball out of Johnson's hands as he reached down to make the potential pick.
* A nice blitz pickup by Pierre Thomas on Madieu Williams allowed Brees time to find Henderson for a 9-yard completion on third-and-10.
* David Thomas delivered a terrific lead block on Brinkley to give Pierre Thomas the room to make his diving conversion on fourth-and-inches. Personnel The Saints ran only 55 plays, their second-fewest this season. Consequently, they were more limited than usual in their personnel groupings. They spent most of the time in their basic sets: a three-receiver, one-back package and a base two-receiver, one back, one fullback set. The only time the Saints went to a four-receiver set was for the Hail Mary attempt on the final play of regulation. Tight end Jeremy Shockey was limited to only 23 snaps. As a result, the Saints used reserve tackle Zach Strief for a season-high 14 reps at tight end. Mike Bell did not play a single rep at running back. His role is usually as the second-half closer to help run out the clock but the Saints never really got into that position. Here's the breakdown of the reps at each skill position: WR -- Colston 51; Henderson 45; Meachem 28; Moore 8. TE -- D.Thomas 32; Shockey 23; Zach Strief 14. RB -- P.Thomas 30; Bush 30; Hamilton 1. FB -- D.Thomas 22; Kyle Eckel 1. Here's a look at the Saints' personnel packages on their 55 offensive snaps: 2WR/1TE/1RB/1FB: 15 out of 55 plays 3WR/1TE/1RB: 15 out of 55 2WR/2TE/1RB: 10 out of 55 3WR/1RB/1FB: 6 out of 55 1WR/2TE/1RB/1FB: 3 out of 55 2WR/1TE/2RB: 3 out of 55 4WR/1RB: 1 out of 55