NEW ORLEANS — It wasn't easy, but the Saints finally reached the NFL's most coveted stage: the Super Bowl.
New Orleans pulled out a dramatic overtime victory in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday night, surviving Minnesota's late threat in the final moments of regulation then earning a 31-28 win on Garrett Hartley's 40-yard field goal.
"It's a pretty special feeling," coach Sean Payton said of the Saints reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in their 43-year history.
The Saints face Peyton Manning and the Colts on Feb. 7 in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. It's the first time the top seeds in each conference have made the big game since the 1993 season.
The biggest error was made by Vikings quarterback Brett Favre at one of the most crucial times.
Flushed from the pocket with 19 seconds left in regulation, the veteran seemed to have room to run to set up a field goal. Instead, the 40-year-old threw across his body to the middle of the field and was intercepted by Tracy Porter at the Saints 22. Porter returned it to the 48, and the Saints ran out the clock to send the game into overtime.
That finished off the Vikings' chance in regulation to reach their first Super Bowl in 33 years.
"Tracy was playing zone, and he was able to read (Favre's) eyes and make a play on the ball," said Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who helped the defense record five turnovers — two interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
The Saints won the coin toss to start overtime and never relinquished the ball. On fourth and short near midfield, running back Pierre Thomas picked up a first down. Quarterback Drew Brees then guided them to the Vikings 22, and Hartley split the uprights 4:45 into overtime.
"Just helping my team get to Miami," Hartley said. "Just doing my part."
Brees was spotty at times but came through when it mattered. He finished 17-of-31 for 197 yards and three touchdowns, including a 5-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Bush that gave the Saints their first lead at 28-21.
Officials initially ruled Bush had been tackled out of bounds by Tyrell Jackson, and Payton emphatically threw the red challenge flag for a review of the call. Moments later, the play was ruled a touchdown.
"We just kept fighting, we just kept battling, and it was a heck of a game," Payton said.
But the Vikings were resilient.
Favre directed a seven-play, 58-yard drive to tie the score at 28, with running back Adrian Peterson finding the end zone for his third touchdown of the game with 4:58 left in regulation.
The Saints offense, the league's No. 1 unit in the regular season, struggled for much of the game, and the Vikings had 31 first downs compared with the Saints' 15.
But the Saints defense stepped up again and again.
"The defense is the main reason we're here," Bush said. "They played like absolute monsters."
Favre finished 28-of-46 for 310 yards and a touchdown but had the two interceptions. The Saints kept battering him all night, but Favre kept coming back.
"I've never seen two quarterbacks compete like that," Payton said. "I tip my hat to Minnesota. You had two teams that played their hearts out. I'm proud of having the chance to coach the guys in a game like (the Super Bowl)."