MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have earned another chance to erase the bitter memories of a home loss in the NFC championship game two years ago.
Minnesota's 34-16 victory Saturday over the New Orleans Saints put the Vikings into the NFC championship game next Sunday at the New York Giants. The Giants beat Philadelphia 20-10 on Sunday.
More than half of the players on Minnesota's roster were on the team for the Vikings' 30-27 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons two seasons ago. Now they get a chance at redemption.
"Obviously, we wasted our opportunity in 1998," running back Robert Smith said. "The most important thing for us will be to go out there and play our best game next week and not just go through the motions. I think we did that a little bit in the last three games of the year."
"Things like that happen in the NFL. It's tough to win, especially when two of the three are on the road and our opponents are fighting for their playoff lives."
The Vikings won the NFC Central and earned a first-round bye despite losing their final three games. Coach Dennis Green improved to 10-1 coming off bye weeks.
Daunte Culpepper's sprained right ankle was given time to heal. The offensive line figured out how to protect him from the Saints, who were held without a sack for only the second time this season. The maligned defense installed a new blitz package and became more aggressive in pass coverage. The Vikings practiced in full gear for one of the few times since they moved indoors because of the cold.
"I told Dennis we needed to wear pads," receiver Cris Carter said, "because the guys were moving so well in practice we couldn't protect ourselves."
The first few plays of Saturday's game put those losses behind them. The Saints were punting after their third offensive play. The Vikings were celebrating Randy Moss' 53-yard touchdown reception after their third play.
Most important, the Vikings had a lead and a noisy Metrodome. They were able to maintain the balanced attack they had to abandon when they fell behind early in December losses to St. Louis and Indianapolis. They regained the home-field advantage that was missing in a loss to Green Bay.
"I really didn't know how we were going to respond," Moss said. "I was cautious myself as to how we were going to play. I really didn't know.
"But with all the energy we had around the locker room all week long, in my mind, I thought we were going to come out and dominate."
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