The marriage of Favre and Rice has propelled the Vikings
Something old and something new helped propel the Minnesota Vikings into the NFC Championship game: The football marriage of Brett Favre and Sidney Rice.
The legendary 40-year-old quarterback and a blossoming wide receiver 17 years his junior complemented a crushing defensive effort in Sunday’s 34-3 home rout of Dallas. Rice tied an NFL postseason mark by catching three touchdown passes from Favre, who set his own record by becoming the oldest quarterback to ever start a playoff game.
As a result of their efforts, the honeymoon for Favre and his new team will continue in Sunday’s NFC Championship game against host New Orleans.
“This season has been everything I thought it would be,” Favre said after posting the second-highest playoff quarterback rating (134.6) of his 19-year NFL career. “When people ask, ‘Are you glad you came back?’ … Yes. This season has been a lot of fun.”
Rice has helped make it that way, even though the close professional relationship between the two was unexpected after Favre signed with Minnesota in August. Veteran wide receiver Bernard Berrian was supposed to become Favre’s top target. Rice was a third-year player who had yet to prove worthy of being a 2007 second-round draft choice.
But as Berrian struggled with a preseason hamstring injury, Favre and Rice became a match made in NFL heaven. Rice, who transformed into an offseason workout fiend while recovering from a 2008 knee injury, clicked with Favre immediately. The result was Pro Bowl berths for these newlyweds. Rice finished as Minnesota’s leading receiver during the regular season with 83 catches for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns.
“The guys I play with I have to be confident in,” Favre said. “I had never thrown a pass to Sidney Rice. But once Sidney felt the confidence I and the team had in him, Sidney took off.”
The chemistry between the two was evident on all three of Rice’s scores.
The first touchdown got Minnesota rolling after a rough defensive start. Recognizing a cover-two defensive look, Rice altered his planned post route when left untouched off the line of scrimmage. Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh tried helping in coverage but hadn’t even turned around by the time Rice caught Favre’s 47-yard pass in the end zone.
The second was the kind of school-yard play that is Favre’s trademark. Favre scrambled and avoided a heavy pass rush by defensive end Marcus Spears while Rice was getting up off the turf after throwing a low block on outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Although he wasn’t supposed to run a pattern, Rice began motoring toward the goal line. Favre found him for a 16-yard score.
“They kind of read each other’s minds out there,” Vikings tight end Jim Kleinsasser said. “It’s pretty crazy some of the throws and catches that have been coming out of those two.”
The final 45-yard touchdown was more of the same. Under pressure from a blitz, Favre heaved the football down the Vikings sideline as Rice jostled with Cowboys cornerback Mike Jenkins. Rice shed Jenkins to become the 13th different player with three TDs in a single playoff contest. Rice would have set the mark if able to corral a fourth-quarter Favre pass that sailed just out of his reach.
“Almost,” a smiling Rice lamented.
Rice, though, has no complaints. He finished with six catches for 141 yards, which Rice admits was surprising because the Vikings “didn’t think we could get anything down the field. Watching (the Cowboys) on film, they keep their safeties real deep and they don’t give up the big play.”
At least until Sunday. Entering the game, Dallas was seemingly peaking at the right time while the Vikings — three-time losers in December — received a first-round bye only after the Cowboys had defeated Philadelphia in the regular-season finale. With four consecutive wins and a dominating defense, Favre described the Cowboys as the NFL’s “hottest” team.
But then the Minnesota defense cooled Dallas’ offense by forcing three Tony Romo fumbles and sacking the Cowboys quarterback six times. Conversely, Favre didn’t commit a turnover while finishing with four touchdowns and 234 yards on 15-of-24 passing.
“It’s the same old Brett,” Rice said. “He’s doing things he’s done since he first came into the league. He’s still moving around, getting the ball out, breaking tackles. He’s even running downfield throwing blocks. That just shows me how big of a heart he has.”
Rice was wise to tap into Favre’s knowledge. Rice works closely with Favre during practice and sometimes sends text messages away from team headquarters with his thoughts about routes and defensive coverages.
“There are guys who are faster, taller, quicker,” Favre said of the 6-foot-4, 202-pound Rice. “But the thing about Sidney — and I’ve played with guys like him — is the work ethic. He wants to be good. On top of the talent part of it, that’s what makes him a great player. You’ve got to make the plays when given the opportunity, but you’ve got to work toward being that type of player.”
Said Rice: “Brett has been playing a real long time. Anything he says, I’m going to listen to it. I look at him as a player and coach at the same time.”
Understandably, Rice is hoping that Favre doesn’t decide to retire (again) once this season ends. But Rice said he isn’t ready to lobby Favre quite yet.
“We’d love to have him back, but that’s not the focus right now,” Rice said. “The focus is on Feb. 7 (i.e. Super Bowl XLIV) and holding that trophy in the air.”
The aerial magic being made by Rice and Favre has bolstered Minnesota’s chances of doing just that.