MINNEAPOLIS - This is why Brett Favre said he was coming back. And back he is - maybe better than ever.
Four - count 'em, four - touchdown passes from Minnesota's 40-year-old quarterback put the Vikings within a game of the Super Bowl with a 34-3 rout of the Dallas Cowboys to advance to the NFC championship Sunday.
"Probably the most fatigued I got today was celebrating," Favre said, smiling.
The Vikings (13-4) will take on the Saints Sunday at New Orleans, with the winner going to the NFL title game - Favre's season-long goal and the reason he came out of retirement for a second straight season.
"Today was like this season - it's been wonderful," Favre said. Asked if it was an emotional game for him, he said, "I'm kind of worn out right now, but it is. It was emotional before the game."
Favre found Sidney Rice for three scores and Ray Edwards led the defense's harassment of Tony Romo. Then he put an exclamation point on the game late in the fourth quarter when he hit Visanthe Shiancoe for his personal playoff-best fourth TD pass.
Never in 22 previous postseason games had he thrown for that many touchdowns. And never before had he beaten Dallas in the playoffs. Favre completed 15 of 24 passes for 234 yards to finally do it.
Meanwhile, Romo sat stone-faced on the bench between possessions in the second half after a three-turnover game against one of his childhood favorites.
Romo was sacked six times, three by Edwards, lost two of his three fumbles and threw a glaring interception right to Ben Leber deep in his own end late in the third quarter to set up a field goal. After gaining 118 yards in the first quarter, the Cowboys got only 130 the rest of the way and watched the buzz from their first playoff win in 13 years last week fizzle out.
"It's like the elevator falling from the top. It's tough when it's over. If you don't win it all, you have not reached your goal," coach Wade Phillips said.
Romo finished 22 for 35 for 198 yards, but for all the strides he made this season his lack of poise in the din of the Metrodome will be remembered well. The last time Dallas won a playoff game on the road was the NFC championship after the 1992 season.
Favre had a remarkable regular season with a career-low interception total of seven and 33 touchdown passes that pushed the Vikings to their best finish in 11 years. They won their division last season, too, so this return to the playoffs was irrelevant.
The once-unfathomable partnership was formed just for this, a talented team hoping to hitch those title hopes to Favre, who was driven to disprove the doubts about his ability to get back to the big game again.
"It was everything I thought it would be throughout this year and then some," Favre said.
He took some hard hits by Dallas and that fierce front seven, but he was as sharp as he was all season. Stepping up in the pocket to elude the rush and making the right reads downfield, Favre looked the part of the missing Super Bowl piece the Vikings were searching for when they persuaded him to join them last summer.
"He's playing his heart out," defensive end Jared Allen said.
After a 35-yard heave to Rice midway through the fourth quarter that stretched the lead to 27-3, Favre ran up to right guard Anthony Herrera and jumped on his back while the fans enjoyed the frenzy.
The Vikings, who had last week off while the Cowboys whipped Philadelphia, were bothered by all the people picking Dallas to win.
"The Tasmanian devils were coming from Dallas that were about to bombard the state of Minnesota and run through us like Sherman through the South," coach Brad Childress said, exaggerating popular opinion about this game.
The Vikings played Dallas only three times in the last decade, hardly rivalry material, but fans in Minnesota have plenty of contempt for the Cowboys. Favre brought his own history of defeat, though scattered and distant, against them with three straight postseason losses early in his career.44.97903 -93.26493
This is why Brett Favre said he was coming back. And back he is - maybe better than ever.