More: AFC title game preview
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Finally the NFC gets the glory matchup, with a brawl between the two top seeds (No. 1 New Orleans Saints vs. No. 2 Minnesota Vikings) and arguably the best quarterback matchup in a championship round since Tom Brady(notes) and Peyton Manning(notes) squared off in the AFC championship following the 2006 season.
Brett Favre(notes) and Drew Brees(notes) both factored into the MVP race this season and combined to throw for a staggering 8,590 yards, finishing with 67 touchdown passes. Favre is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and Brees is heading in that direction, and each is the unquestioned leader of his team. And a Super Bowl appearance would mean a great deal to both – the ultimate capper on Favre's stunning career, or an apex in Brees' statistic-bloated but championship thin résumé.
With that in mind, consider the following four issues as critical to the Saints-Vikings matchup on Sunday in the NFC championship game.
Drew Brees (Getty Images)
1. Favre vs. Brees
They have both had periods in their careers where they have been mistake prone, but neither has really been that player this season. In fact, you could argue that 2009 represented the finest seasons of both players' careers. And both reflected that in the divisional round. However, each is also vulnerable when he gets knocked around, evidenced by Brees' performances against the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, and Favre's December. Each shows some inaccuracy when he gets hit, and make no mistake, both will take blows in the conference title game. This will come down to who makes better decisions under pressure.
Sean Payton and Brad Childress (Getty Images)
2. Brad Childress vs. Sean Payton
Childress had his hiccup in the final month of the season, when the specter was raised about how much authority he has over Favre. I don't think there's any question that Favre still influences that offense with his audibles. Payton has turned his defense over to Gregg Williams, so there really isn't one true master manipulator in this game. That said, both Childress and Payton will be pivotal when it comes to motivation and focus. While Childress has shown the ability to be a little more flexible (the gag when he dressed up as a female flight attendant is an all-time great), Payton's tactics and mental manipulation have been never-ending, from his bat games to bringing in visitors for pregame speeches. More importantly, Payton has one thing Childress doesn't: the experience of being in this position before as a head coach and failing. That will be a big edge.
3. The Saints' running backs vs. Vikings' front four
New Orleans has been branded in some quarters as a "finesse" offense, perhaps unfairly. But one thing is for sure: It is almost unbeatable when the Saints run the football well. Indeed, part of the faltering in the three-game losing streak to close the season was the lack of a balanced attack. New Orleans reacted to that by thumping the Arizona Cardinals with 171 hard-nosed rushing yards. Whether the Saints will be able to grind out that yardage against Minnesota's second-ranked rushing defense will be pivotal. The Vikings dominated the New York Giants' running game in the season finale and then shut down Dallas' extremely talented trio. If Minnesota's front four can make New Orleans one-dimensional again, the Vikings will have landed a significant blow.
Brett Favre (Getty Images)
4. Favre vs. himself
With all due respect to Brees, I don't think there is a single player who will take the field on Sunday who has more pressure on his shoulders than Favre. All of the offseason drama of the last two years – including the ridiculous road traveled through New York – has led to this point. If Favre wins, he gets another shot at the Super Bowl and is totally vindicated. But there is a flip side to this tale, too. Just go back and recall the landslide of negativity that came after he lost in the NFC championship game following the 2007 season. That loss staggered Favre and triggered the ensuing chaos. All of this can still end very badly for Favre. Don't fool yourself. He knows what's at stake here.
Prediction: Vikings 27, Saints 24
Minnesota isn't the Swiss cheese defense of Arizona. The Vikings will get consistent pressure on Brees. The Saints have the imposing Superdome crowd, but Favre has a running back in Adrian Peterson who will be the best player on the field after the two quarterbacks. That will be the tipping point.