Late Monday afternoon, after many of his teammates and the media that follow them were gone, Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was in the team's weight room putting himself through a fairly vigorous workout to the sounds of country music. This was a day after the 40-year-old had thrown 24 passes, four of them touchdowns, in a 34-3 victory over Dallas in the divisional playoffs to move within a game of the Super Bowl.
He was -- he is -- in a moment few players could have ever imagined, let alone engineered. Surely sore, achy and tired, Favre forged ahead; too close to playing in another championship to rest or do something that could render this season meaningless.
Favre wasn't feeling it while he was training earlier this week, but before the NFC Championship Game kicks off, with the fans' voices in the Louisiana Superdome showering down on him, the New Orleans Saints warming up across from him and his teammates looking at him for guidance, there will be pressure.
Though the Saints are the No. 1 seed in the NFC by virtue of posting the best record in the conference, they are playing with house money. Nobody expected them to be challenging for a Super Bowl, even after they won 13 straight games followed by three consecutive losses to close out the regular season. If New Orleans loses, the Saints will still be loved like the Chicago Cubs: adorable, and a rallying point for a city that needs one.
Now let's go grab a cold one.
The Vikings and Favre, on the other hand, agreed to join forces last summer to win a Super Bowl. When Favre donned the purple uniform of a team he used to hate -- its fans, coaches and players once shared the same ill feelings toward him -- it seemed so surreal. But the fusion thus far has been a perfect fit. Failure to defeat the Saints, though, would end Minnesota's exuberant season and all the hope percolating through the fan base right now might quickly give way to despair.
"When it comes to pressure, I have no idea who has the most pressure. All I know is that we've got to win this game. We've got to win this game," Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said. "We have high expectations of this team. We feel like it's Super Bowl or bust."
Running back Adrian Peterson echoed what Shiancoe said, except Peterson added that the season would be an outright disappointment with no Super Bowl. The Saints, if they lose, can still say they improved on an 8-8 record from 2008. The Jets can claim they made it further than anyone expected with a rookie quarterback if they get knocked out this weekend. The Colts? There will be plenty of heat if they don't make it to the Super Bowl, but before the season, they weren't even projected to win the division by many, with new head coach Jim Caldwell taking over for Tony Dungy.
The Vikings were supposed to be good, having won the NFC North last season. When they signed Favre they got their missing ingredient. For Favre, he got to join the team he so desperately desired to play for after leaving the Packers two years ago. He spent last season with the Jets, where a bum shoulder kept him from getting them to where rookie Mark Sanchez has them now.
Favre has brought swagger and confidence to a team that mistakenly thought it had enough of those qualities before his arrival. Favre has made players such as wide receiver Sidney Rice feel whole. He has made others, like Shiancoe, believe this is their year. Last week, before the Vikings dismantled red-hot Dallas, Favre confidently said this was the time to make the investment in him pay off.
This is why he is in Minnesota -- to win in the playoffs.
The Vikings have taken one step forward, but there is still a ways to go. Besides dealing with the in-house pressure to win, Favre and the Vikings must contend with a Saints team that is every bit as hungry as Minnesota.
The Saints have never been to a Super Bowl. They're envious that the Vikings have been four times -- all losses -- but envious nonetheless. Besides that, New Orleans is a team every bit good enough to pull the rug from under the Vikings and ride the magic carpet to a Super bowl of their own.
As much as Favre has done for Minnesota, quarterback Drew Brees has breathed life into a woebegone franchise and to the entire city of New Orleans. Except Brees isn't on loan. He's more like what Favre was for 16 seasons in Green Bay, the great quarterback who everyone in town can relate to and will be part of its fabric forever. In the here and now, Favre is playing for the Vikings, but he remains part of Green Bay. Anyone there will tell you as much.
The pressure will mount on Favre soon, because he's good enough to make this Minnesota's year. Any mishap against the Saints will make it seem like he's not good enough. A loss and history will make Favre's journey to Minnesota look like Johnny Unitas closing out his career with the Chargers, Joe Montana going out as a Kansas City Chief, or Joe Namath spending his final season with the Rams.
A victory Sunday and Favre could be on the cusp of being a legend for two franchises and two cities. Taking two teams -- rivals from the same division no less -- to a Super Bowl, and winning a second title, would elevate Favre to the highest levels of sports grandeur. He could end his career -- finally -- on top. True storybook stuff, like John Elway, but with an adoptive franchise.
Then again, he also could end his career with a loss at New Orleans. That's pressure that he might not feel, but it's a reality that some of the Vikings who've welcomed him, tolerated him, trusted him and followed him will begin to understand as we get closer to game day.
This might be the window of opportunity for all of them.
If Favre does seriously call it quits, the Vikings are where they were before he signed. They're very good, but maybe not good enough to fend off the upstart Packers in the NFC North or other teams that could emerge from around the league. That's why the time is now.
It's why Favre, who will start his 309th consecutive game, was pushing through that workout when he could probably have been at the movies. It's also why his teammates don't seem to be taking anything for granted -- especially Favre.
"We feel like we have to get (to the Super Bowl)," Shiancoe said. "We have a great team. Great talent on this team, especially this offense. We have Favre. We got No. 4 orchestrating this offense… He just needs to keep slinging the ball the way he's slinging it.
"That's all we care about, man. He's playing at a high level. It's up to him if he comes back next year or not. Who knows with him? It will be another Favre-a-palooza. You already know that. It will be another Favre-a-palooza."