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Saints, Vikings went opposite ways since '09

By Jon Krawczynski

AP Sports Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- The New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings couldn't have been much closer in their epic NFC title game showdown on Jan. 24, 2010, an overtime thriller that Drew Brees and the Saints barely survived on their way to the franchise's first Super Bowl title.

Less than two years later, the two franchises could hardly be further apart.

The Saints (10-3) roll into the Metrodome on Sunday as one of the model teams in the NFC, an organization with a rock solid foundation at the three most important positions -- front office, coach and quarterback.

By no coincidence, the Saints are in first place in the NFC South, two games ahead of the Atlanta Falcons and tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the second-best record in the NFC. Even with the Green Bay Packers looking like the class of the league, the Saints still have a realistic shot at a return trip to the big game.

"We're a veteran team that's been through a lot," Brees said. "We've kind of learned the formula for winning and sustaining success."

The Vikings (2-11), meanwhile, have fallen off the cliff ever since Garrett Hartley's 40-yard field goal split the uprights to end Minnesota's hopes of their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1978. Brett Favre returned for one more ill-fated run the next year, a long, miserable 6-10 season in which coach Brad Childress was fired, Favre was embroiled in a texting scandal, Randy Moss came and went in about four weeks and the Dome's roof collapsed.

"You really can't explain it," Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "It's crazy. The Saints, they're still a really good football team. Drew Brees still down there, working hard, making plays. I really don't know what's going on. We really can't put our finger on it."

Start with the lack of continuity. Since that loss, the Vikings have used five quarterbacks -- Favre, Tarvaris Jackson, Joe Webb, Donovan McNabb and now rookie Christian Ponder -- and have had a lot of turnover on the coaching staff.

"In my mind, it seems like eons ago, seems like forever when we played them in the NFC championship game," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "So much has transpired between that time and where we are today."

While not as catastrophic off the field, Frazier's first season has been even tougher on the field. McNabb didn't pan out as the quarterback who was supposed to keep the team from a rebuilding season, the secondary was decimated by injuries, Adrian Peterson has missed the last three weeks with a high ankle sprain and Ponder has experienced the growing pains everyone expected when he took over as the starter seven games ago.

The Vikings have lost five games in a row, with the only solace to be taken that a team that waved goodbye to meaningful games more than a month ago continues to show up every week and give its opponent all they can handle, including last weekend in Detroit, when the Vikings fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter but still had a chance to win the game on the final play.

"There are a lot of reasons not to really concentrate and focus and battle," Frazier said. "And they found reasons to battle, to focus, to believe that they could get back in that game and win that game."

Still, moral victories aren't giving much comfort to a veteran team that remembers what it feels like to be so close.

"Me and Kevin (Williams) were laughing about it today, saying, 'We've got to do something. We've got to turn it around. That can't be the only memory of being close to the Super Bowl that I tell my grandkids about at some point,'" defensive end Jared Allen said.

The Saints are looking to add another chapter to a book that already includes one fairy tale finish.

Brees is playing as well as he ever has, threatening the single-season passing record and seemingly getting stronger as the season has progressed. He has topped 320 yards passing in four straight games, with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions during that span.

New Orleans has won five in a row and six of seven to keep the Falcons (8-5) at arm's length and keep pace with the 49ers for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Jimmy Graham has emerged as one of the dominant tight ends in the game and linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been back in the middle of the Saints defense for the last two games after missing four weeks with knee surgery earlier in the season.

"For us it's been a journey," Brees said. "We've been able to win a lot of games and put ourselves in pretty good position within our division and playoff wise. It hasn't been easy by any means. We've had to fight through some adversity. We've had to fight through some injuries at key positions and certain things.

Saints coach Sean Payton, who has been in place with Brees for the last six seasons, said continuity has been the biggest key to New Orleans' sustained success.

"When you look at ownership, GM, head coach, players on our team, the staff, there's been a very stable program where I think everyone understands how hard it is, how difficult it is, the challenges we face in winning games and getting to the postseason," Payton said.