Battered and beaten, Brett Favre limped off the field for perhaps the final time.
His head down, the pained look on his face was brought on as much by a head-scratching turnover as it was by a bone-crunching hit from Bobby McCray.
With the NFC championship game tied, the Minnesota Vikings close to field goal range and mere seconds left, Favre made the kind of mistake he had avoided all season.
He committed the No. 1 no-no for an NFL quarterback when he threw the ball late and back over the middle toward Sidney Rice, and Tracy Porter stepped in front to intercept the pass Sunday.
New Orleans won the coin toss in overtime, and before Favre could take the field, Drew Brees drove them into position for Garrett Hartley's winning field goal that gave the Saints a 31-28 victory and their first Super Bowl berth.
After the game, a glassy-eyed Favre had scratches on his nose and bruises on his forehead. He said he wasn't quite ready to make a decision on his future just yet.
"I know people are rolling their eyes or will roll their eyes," Favre said. "In a situation like this I really don't want to make a decision right now based on what's happened, because I do know the year could not have gone any better aside from us not going to Miami. I really enjoyed it, to be honest.
“Just wondering if I can hold up, especially after a day like today. Physically and mentally. That was pretty draining.”Brett Favre
"Just wondering if I can hold up, especially after a day like today. Physically and mentally. That was pretty draining. I am going to go home, a couple of days and just talk it over with the family."
The interception was a crushing end to an inspiring performance by Favre, who hobbled around the field for the entire final period after a hit by McCray put him on the trainer's table with a left ankle he thought might be broken.
The NFL's iron man, who has started a record 309 consecutive games, never missed a play and rallied the Vikings from 7 points down in the fourth quarter to tie the game.
"I thought it was a gutty, gutty performance," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "He grinded it out."
Favre finished with 310 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, the last of which may haunt him for a long, long time.
It was somewhat reminiscent of two years ago while he was with the Packers in the NFC title game. Favre threw an interception against the Giants that led to the field goal that put New York in the Super Bowl and started Favre's annual will-he-or-won't-he offseason drama.
After driving the Vikings for the tying score with under 5 minutes to go in regulation, Favre moved Minnesota into Saints territory again as the clock wound down.
On third-and-15 from the New Orleans 38, Favre knew the Vikings needed to get closer to give Ryan Longwell a legitimate shot at a game-winning field goal.
So Favre made one more gamble, and lost big. He rolled right and then, instead of scrambling for the yards that might have put Minnesota in field goal range, threw cross-field to the left. Porter snagged it to end the threat.
Favre just shook his head, knowing that his best - and maybe last - chance to reach the Super Bowl may have just slipped away.
"I probably should have ran it," Favre said. "I don't know how far I could have gotten. But in hindsight, that's probably what I should have done. I don't know how many yards we needed for a field goal, but I knew we needed some. I was just late to Sidney."
And with that, his chance for a third Super Bowl appearance, and the first for the Vikings in 33 years, was lost.
He took a beating all day from the Saints' persistent rush. That 40-year-old body of his will likely look as purple as the Vikings helmet on his head when he wakes up on Monday morning.
He was flattened by McCray late in the third quarter, a crunching hit that put him flat on his back with pain in his left leg. As he lay on the trainer's table, backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was warming up, and it seemed as though his night, and his career, might have been over.
Just like he's done for the past 19 years, Favre got back up and stayed in the game.
"He's a warrior," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "The guy is unbelievable. He battled. He's a competitor. He always fights to the end and he gave such a great effort."
He added a few more records to an already endless list of them. Favre surpassed Joe Montana and now holds NFL career playoff records for completions and yards passing.
If this indeed was his last season, what a way to go out.
After an injury-plagued 2008 with the Jets, Favre joined the Vikings and put together his best statistical season.
He set career bests in completion percentage (68.4), quarterback rating (107.2) and fewest interceptions (7), while throwing for 33 TDs and 4,202 yards. The Vikings (12-4) earned a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs, and last week Favre became with the first 40-year-old QB to win a playoff game with a four-touchdown performance against the Cowboys.
How long it takes for him to make up his mind this time around, and how many times it will change before a final conclusion is reached, is anyone's guess.
One thing is certain: The Vikings would be happy to have him back.
"I told him go home and lick your wounds and I'll do the same and we'll catch up down the road," Childress said. "Nobody wants to be rash about any decision-making, I'm sure, right now."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)