NEW ORLEANS — It's hard to tell which 12th man was more of a factor in Sunday's NFC championship loss to the Saints: the raucous, roaring, ebbing-and-flowing sea of black and gold in the Superdome or the extra man who was on the field when the Vikings had a chance to win the game.
It's easy, however, to pinpoint which one was more egregious.
At the Saints' 33-yard line, in control of the ball and clock and only needing to run the ball a yard or two forward, an extra man appeared on the field. Twelve is not better than 11 in this case, and coming out of a timeout, the Vikings committed what will be one of the more haunting penalties in franchise history.
This one will resonate for a long time.
Minnesota might have been playing for a 50-yard field goal, which Ryan Longwell made two of this season, and the indoor conditions — noise and pressure aside — made it a makeable kick. But because of the extra five yards, 15 silly feet, the Vikings had to throw.
Of course, they all said they had the same play called on 3rd-and-10 that they ran on 3rd-and-15: a pass that was designed to go to Bernard Berrian in the flat against man coverage. The Saints checked out of man, and Brett Favre was late to deliver the ball to WR Sidney Rice. The pass was intercepted, and the Vikings' chances of winning in regulation were gone.
"I am not sure what happened, or how 12 men ended up in the huddle, but it is what it is," Rice said.
Neither Rice nor Favre would give up the guilty party. Head coach Brad Childress would only say that "it was all in line with the number of timeouts they had left. We just had a fullback in there and we broke the huddle with 12 (men).
"You can't call back-to-back timeouts. We had just come out of a timeout."
And that's why it hurts the most.
Make no mistake, this will fall on Childress' head — fairly or not. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is probably the more responsible party, and players have to be responsible for self-policing when they are supposed to be on the field. But the foul is that much more painful coming out of a timeout. And that's why Childress deserves some of the blame. He has to remind his team and coaches that they can't have any negative plays on 3rd-and-10.
Those five yards cost them a chance at the Super Bowl.
All the talk leading up to the game was about the Superdome crowd and the noise they would present. Oh, they were loud. Rock-concert loud. Air-hangar loud. Drag-race loud. The back-and-forth nature of the game gentled them up a bit at times, but there was little drop-off with the waxing hours. No question: The fans showed up and made their presence known. But to the Vikings' credit, they handled it pretty well. Zero false starts and no really apparent mixups with audibles or checks with Favre at the line.
"I don't think the crowd noise was much of a factor," OLT Bryant McKinnie said. "But you can't turn the ball over like we did (five times)."
Even with the five turnovers, the Vikings should have won. They outplayed the Saints for most of the game, even taking the crowd out of it at times with long drives and clutch third-down conversions. Favre, though, seemed to suggest that the noise, that 12th man, played a role in the other fateful 12th man: the penalty.
"I think that was a communication issue," Favre said. "It goes without saying how loud it was. ... For the most part, communication was good at the line of scrimmage. That was not one of them."
Five yards might have cost the Vikings a Super Bowl. Just one extra fullback coming on the field with the game in the balance. The 12th man no one expected was the difference in the game.
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